Homeland Security Committee members fault Chertoff for delaying legal framework for new office
A controversial plan that would allow domestic law enforcement agencies to use data gathered by US spy satellites still lacks necessary civil liberties and privacy protections, and three Democratic lawmakers are urging Department of Homeland Security Chair Michael Chertoff to established a legal framework for the new plan he promised six months ago.
DHS plans to create a new office that would expand law enforcement and other civilian agencies' access to data gathered by powerful intelligence and military satellites orbiting the earth. The National Applications Office will oversee who can access such satellite data, which is typically used to monitor climate change and track hurricane damage, among other uses.
DHS still has not laid out legal frameworks or standard operating procedures for the office, according to a letter from three members of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"We recently learned that the Department has begun to advertise for positions at the NAO. While we applaud the Department's efforts to prepare for the future, we are disappointed by its continuing pattern of putting the cart before the horse," wrote Reps. Bennie G. Thompson, the committee's chair; Jane Harman, chair of an intelligence subcommittee; and Christopher P. Carney, chair of an oversight subcommittee.
The lawmakers said they were concerned about the "privacy and civil liberties challenges" posed by the domestic satellite program. They said a legal framework for the program was missing from the NAO's charter, which "had been finalized without any input from this committee ... or the privacy and civil liberties community.
"Instead of crafting a privacy and civil liberties solution for the Department's NAO law enforcement customers or updating us about a summer date for its completion, the NAO Charter now makes clear that this critical undertaking will be postponed until an unspecified time in the future," they write. "This is unacceptable."
The domestic spy satellite plan was first proposed last August, and its expected launch in October was delayed because of privacy concerns. The lawmakers' letter, which was sent Monday, makes clear those concerns remain.
Although we support any Department effort to engage in more effective and responsive information sharing with our nation's first preventers, the serious privacy and civil liberties issues that the NAO raises are manifold and multifaceted. Doing business with the NAO's law enforcement and other customers therefore requires a robust and detailed legal framework and SOPs that provide clearly defined privacy and civil liberties safeguards. Merely mentioning Posse Comitatus and other laws in the NAO Charter does not provide needed assurances that the Department will not transform NAO into a domestic spying platform. Furthermore, delaying the hard work of addressing the privacy and civil liberties issues specific to law enforcement customers further erodes our confidence that you are serious about serving their needs. It's frankly time for the Department to lead on privacy and civil liberties in this area -- not shirk a difficult duty.
The NAO would expand access to data gathered by Measurement and Signal Intelligence (MASINT) satellites, which according to reports use radar and infrared imaging technologies to see through cloud cover, forest canopies and even concrete barriers. Allowing local police forces access to such data raises substantial questions about whether the door to 4th Amendment violations is being flung open.
A Congressional Research Service report prepared last month outlined some of these concerns. It concluded that privacy concerns were likely to be dependent upon the type of technology used. That, the lawmakers said in their letter Monday, has still not been clarified by DHS.
(A previous version of this story incorrectly defined MASINT as "Mass Intelligence." The error has been corrected. RAW STORY regrets the error.)