NASHVILLE, Tenn. and WASHINGTON — Citing continued concerns about civil liberties, a U.S. lawmaker said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should hold off on establishing an office to facilitate use of spy satellites for domestic security and law enforcement purposes until the new president takes office next year.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said she remains skeptical of DHS plans to establish a National Applications Office (NAO) that would handle requests from U.S. civil and law enforcement authorities to use reconnaissance satellite data. “The need for the NAO still needs to be proved,” Harman, who chairs the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment, said Oct.
29 in
a telephone interview.

The NAO, formally proposed in 2007 as part of the
government’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, would facilitate expanded use of spy satellites in a domestic context; such uses of these highly classified assets traditionally have been limited to scientific, environmental and disaster-management applications. The NAO was supposed to be up and running in the fall of 2007 but was held up when several lawmakers, including Harman, demanded assurances that the office would not be used to spy on

Charles Allen, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS, said the utmost attention is being given to protecting civil liberties and privacy and that the NAO will comply with existing laws and policies regarding domestic spying. Speaking Oct. 28 at the Geoint 2008 Symposium in
, Allen said the NAO has not yet opened for business but is prepared to do so.

Allen said the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, has looked into the privacy and civil liberties issues posed by the NAO and reported its findings back to the lawmakers who raised the concerns.

Harman said the Government Accountability Office’s study was “highly critical” of the NAO and that Congress had urged the Homeland Security Department not to rush out with the new office. “While standing up the office may be technically permissible, having NAO conduct any real activities is against the wishes of Congress,” Harman said. “Congress made that clear. Both the Homeland Security Committee and House Appropriations Committee [made that clear] in text I’m sure Charlie Allen read and understands.

“The better course is to take a deep breath, wait for the new president, and roll out, if it’s necessary at all, a complete legal framework to assure Americans that military satellites which might fly over them are fully complying with the law and the constitution.”

Congress has spoken clearly about the need for a legal framework for the new office before it will fund its activities, Harman said.

Several DHS officials including Allen said during the symposium that geospatial information – a term that refers to imagery-based data products – is critical to the agency’s domestic security, border protection, drug interdiction and disaster response missions. Domestic security authorities need access to both space and airborne imagery to characterize threats, plan responses and conduct intelligence-based operations, Allen said.

Allen noted, for example, that national technical means – a common government euphemism for spy satellites – are being used to monitor and help secure the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, Geospatial data also is used to plan security for major events, such as political conventions and presidential inaugurations, and for disaster response and mitigation.

“I understand the need to use satellites for massive outdoor events or natural disasters,” said Harman. “I don’t think the need has been proved to do any more.”

The DHS has its own unique requirements for imagery, Allen said, adding that he serves on an executive committee that helps draw up specifications for new spacecraft. He said the government needs more-agile platforms and should focus less on complex, multimission satellites in favor of flexible, modular platforms that can accommodate a variety of payloads and can be built and launched relatively quickly.

Robert Zitz, deputy associate director of the U.S. Secret Service, a division of DHS, said civil and law enforcement authorities have needs similar to those of military and strategic decision makers when it comes to the use of geospatial data. Both use the information for pre-event planning, execution of plans during events, and for dealing with the aftermath.

In addition, he said, both place a premium on accuracy, detail and timeliness. Domestic security officials and first responders are “very similar to special operations forces deployed worldwide for military purposes,” he said.

However, there are important differences, Zitz said; some advantageous for domestic authorities, others less so.

For example, he said, domestic applications generally require the lowest possible classification levels for data so it can readily be shared with state and local authorities. Typically, the data collected by
government-owned imagery satellites is classified.

On the other hand there often is far more information available to supplement domestic geospatial data than there is for imagery of areas overseas where access is limited or denied, Zitz said. Federal authorities have access to state and local databases of information that can be combined with geospatial data, he said.

And while protection of privacy and civil liberties is more of an issue when using geospatial data domestically, state and local authorities do not have the same robust technical data dissemination architecture that the military and the intelligence community enjoy, Zitz said.

But the domestic data infrastructure is growing. Allen noted during his keynote that a nationwide network of data fusion centers is being established that allow state and local authorities to access, combine and share intelligence data from a variety of sources, including federal. He said 35 state-based data fusion centers will be fully functional by the end of the year, with 50 fully functional by the end of next year.

These data fusion centers, established in partnership with federal authorities, allow a state trooper who has made a traffic stop, for example, to check and see whether the motorist is on a terrorist watch list, said David Mitchell, director of the Tennessee state governor’s Office of Homeland Security.

Robert Riegle, director of the State and Local Government Program Office in the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said speeding the delivery of geospatial intelligence to state and local authorities is a top priority and noted that not all data fusion centers have reached the same capability level. In addition to helping set up the data fusion centers, the DHS deploys intelligence officers to work with state and local authorities, he said.

Mitchell urged the federal government to sustain its funding for state data fusion centers in the face of a continued terrorist threat. Riegle said the federal government can only do so much and that states must take responsibility for such things as ensuring that first responders are equipped to handle often-classified intelligence data.