he U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has done the right thing in delaying the creation of an office to handle domestic requests for spy-satellite imagery until it can give skeptical lawmakers additional information on the new organization’s roles and responsibilities.
Democrats on the House Committee on Homeland Security complain that they were blindsided by news of the department’s intent to create the National Applications Office (NAO). They have demanded to see a legal framework and operating procedures for the NAO, and recently solicited support for that cause from their colleagues on the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee
who are preparing to negotiate the final 2008 DHS spending bill with the
There is nothing new or radical about using classified U.S. imaging satellites to observe American territory for purposes such as disaster relief, environmental monitoring and even law enforcement. In fact, the NAO will be taking over a role that traditionally has been handled by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Civil Applications Committee.
Satellites also are an effective tool that can and should be at the U.S. government’s disposal as it works to guard against, and respond to, terrorist attacks on American soil. The DHS, which has both disaster-response and anti-terrorism responsibilities, is the logical agency for managing domestic requests for spy imagery.
The fact that only Democrats seem to be up in arms about the NAO has given a partisan tint to this issue. However, improper domestic spying is a legitimate and serious concern, and the Bush administration has a track record of heavy handedness in asserting its national security prerogatives. Meanwhile, the DHS has been less than clear on whether the NAO’s establishment would lead to expanded use of classified imagery for purposes such as law enforcement and border security.
By taking the time to clarify the responsibilities of the NAO and to reassure skeptics that its creation will not result in satellites being used to improperly pry into the lives of U.S. citizens, the DHS and White House will create a far more effective organization that truly enhances domestic safety.