WASHINGTON - A plan to use US spy satellites for domestic security and law enforcement missions is moving forward after being delayed for months because of privacy and civil liberties concerns.
The charter and legal framework for an office within the Homeland Security Department that would use overhead and mapping imagery from existing satellites is in the final stage of completion, according to a department official who requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about it.
The future of this program is likely to come up today when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff goes to Capitol Hill to talk about his department's spending plan.
Last fall, senior Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee asked the department to put the program on hold until there was a clear legal framework of how the program would operate. This request was made during an ongoing debate over the rules governing eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists inside the United States.
The new plan explicitly states that existing laws that prevent the government from spying on residents would remain in effect, the official said. Under no circumstances, for instance, would the program be used to intercept verbal and written conversations.
The department is waiting for federal executive agencies to sign off on the program, called the National Applications Office, and will share the details with lawmakers soon.
Domestic agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Interior Department have had access to this satellite imagery for years for scientific research, to assist in response to natural disasters, and to map out vulnerabilities during a major public event like the Super Bowl. Since 1974 the requests have been made through the federal interagency group, the Civil Applications Committee.
These types of uses will continue when the Homeland Security Department oversees the program and becomes the clearinghouse for these requests. But the availability of satellite images will be expanded to other agencies to support the homeland security mission. The details of how law enforcement agencies could use the images during investigations would be determined after legal and policy questions have been resolved, the official said.
Requests for satellite images will be vetted even more than they were when the requests went through the Civil Applications Committee. All requests will be reviewed by an interagency group to ensure civil rights and civil liberties are not violated.