Democrats’ concerns persist over police access to satellite data

House Democrats say the Bush administration appears to be on a slippery slope toward significant violations of constitutional rights.

House Homeland Security Democrats are not satisfied with documents the Homeland Security Department sent them on how satellites will be used to support operations inside the United States, saying the Bush administration appears to be on a slippery slope toward significant violations of constitutional rights.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Democrats expect to receive a briefing from Homeland Security officials Friday on what they consider a matter with major policy and legal implications.

The department recently sent lawmakers detailed documents, obtained by CongressDaily, on how its National Applications Office will process requests for satellite capabilities to support civil and homeland security operations.

The office has been prevented from opening while lawmakers wait for GAO to review the documents.

The department will give state and local police access to satellite capabilities to support homeland security activities but not to enforce criminal or civil laws, according to the documents and additional information the department has provided in response to questions. It is a fuzzy distinction that critics say could lead to confusing scenarios and possible legal violations.

Asked to describe appropriate satellite use for state or local law enforcement, the department offered such examples as "assisting with advanced security planning for major public events, aiding search-and-rescue missions in remote areas [and] assisting planning efforts for the protection of critical infrastructure."

But House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Harman, D-Calif., suggested a lot of questions remained unanswered.

"I would not want to start down that slope until we are fully satisfied," Harman said. "We're not moving the goal posts. My goal is not to endlessly ask for information. My goal is to get the right information."

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson issued a statement Monday suggesting the department has raised more questions with its documents than it has answered.

"DHS still needs to submit a legal foundation to ensure Congress and the American public that the National Applications Office is within legal and constitutional bounds. I cannot give my nod of approval to the NAO until a careful review of the legal and constitutional questions this committee has raised are satisfied," Thompson said.

Local law enforcement authorities have relied on satellite capabilities in the past, most notably in response to the 2002 sniper attacks in the area.

But the access has been on an ad hoc basis, said a Republican aide. For example, satellite access to track the snipers went all the way up to the Defense secretary and attorney general for approval, the aide said.

The NAO is expected to give law enforcement agencies streamlined access to powerful intelligence community satellites, military surveillance and reconnaissance space systems, and commercial imagery capabilities.

A Democratic aide worried that the department is making a mistake by treating homeland security operations differently than law enforcement operations.

In recent weeks, Homeland Security sent Congress a 19-page charter, a 19-page civil liberties impact assessment, and an 11-page privacy impact assessment for the NAO, plus a letter from the inspector general's office stating that its concerns have been satisfied.

Taken together, the documents give an unprecedented view into how the NAO and its 34 employees will operate. They describe coordinated procedures for processing requests for satellites using multiple vetting procedures, and give assurances that all laws will be followed.

Republicans appear to be satisfied with the documents. They have been invited to Friday's briefing.

"The documents sent [to Congress] clearly demonstrate that the privacy office has cleared this program; the office of civil rights and civil liberties has cleared this program and the DHS [inspector general] has cleared this program," said House Homeland Security ranking member Peter King. "It would be a shame if we were to further delay or derail this program for purely political purposes."

But the department has appeared to alienate the U.S. satellite industry, a major stakeholder in the operation of the NAO.

"I cannot believe they have screwed this thing up as badly as they have," said Richard Cooper, a Washington lobbyist and former Homeland Security business liaison.

Cooper said satellite capabilities hold great promise to help civil and homeland security operations, but the department has found itself mired in legal quicksand. He chastised the department for not building an industry support network.

"All of the industry people that I have talked to would love to talk to the department about what is available," he said. "But the department has been on radio silence in communicating the assets they're going to use."