The decision by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to shut down an office intended to facilitate broader domestic use of spy satellite data was applauded by civil libertarians and others legitimately wary of Big Brother, but it leaves unanswered the question of whether the nation could be making better use of its highly capable and very expensive reconnaissance assets.

Since 1975, imagery from classified satellites operated by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office has been made available for domestic purposes such as environmental monitoring, natural disaster response and agriculture via the Civil Applications Committee, an interagency coordinating group chaired by the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, a branch of the Department of Interior. That group’s role was to be superseded by the National Applications Office (NAO), an organization within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that was intended to support an expanded list of domestic customers including counterterrorism and law enforcement authorities.

The NAO was part of the government’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which led to the creation of DHS. An independent expert panel tasked in 2005 to review the Civil Applications Committee found that civil and scientific users were well supported by the process but that law enforcement and homeland security authorities lacked a coherent and predictable process for obtaining classified satellite data. The panel, chaired by Keith Hall, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, recommended the establishment of a domestic applications office funded from the U.S. national intelligence budget. In 2007, the Director of National Intelligence – another post-9/11 creation – designated the DHS as the home of the proposed NAO, which also would be assigned the mission of educating nontraditional customers on the value of satellite imagery.

The NAO was controversial from the start; key congressional Democrats, most notably Rep. Jane Harman of
, who chairs the House Homeland Security intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment subcommittee, demanded assurances that the office would comply with existing laws and policies designed to protect the privacy and civil liberties of
citizens. Such a reaction was to be expected, especially given what many perceived as violations of protections against domestic spying by the administration of then-U.S. President George W. Bush.

In written testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee last September, Charles Allen, then-chief intelligence officer at DHS, said the NAO would ensure that civil liberties and privacy would be protected. But Mr. Allen also said that while the NAO would begin operations in the fall of 2008, its support to the law enforcement community would be deferred to allow more time to examine these concerns.

Ms. Harman was not mollified. In an interview in October, she said the DHS had yet to come up with an acceptable legal framework for the NAO and urged the DHS to wait until a new president had taken office. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, in a report released Nov. 11, effectively sided with the lawmaker, saying privacy and civil liberties issues associated with the NAO had not yet been resolved.

Nevertheless, the administration of President Barack Obama requested funding for the NAO for 2010, quickly drawing objections from Ms. Harman and like-minded colleagues; Ms. Napolitano responded by undertaking a review of the office. In a letter to Ms. Harman dated June 9 – just days after the lawmaker introduced legislation to kill the NAO – Ms. Napolitano said the tools and skills available to the intelligence community would be “indispensable” to nontraditional customers – in other words, civil domestic authorities. “It is in our national interest to make these tools available” so long as
civil liberties and privacy laws are respected in the process, she wrote.

Ms. Harman’s objections to the NAO cannot be dismissed as partisan, but it is equally clear that Ms. Napolitano, at least to some extent, shared the previous administration’s view that the office would have tangible security benefits. It should be noted that Ms. Harman does not fundamentally oppose the domestic use of spy satellites; along with Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Appropriations interior and environment subcommittee, she advocated maintaining the Civil Applications Committee within the Department of Interior.

When Ms. Napolitano formally announced the end of the NAO program June 23, she cited more urgent priorities, including the need for state and local data fusion centers. She said the decision was made in consultation with various national, state and local law enforcement groups. Ms. Napolitano’s press release made no mention of consultations with those most intimately familiar with the surveillance tools in question: the traditional intelligence community and the military.

It was representatives from these groups, both known for jealously guarding their own priorities, who led the study that recommended establishing the NAO. Mr. Hall’s panel concluded that “opportunities to better protect the nation are being missed” due to shortcomings in the current process for making classified satellite imagery available to domestic security and law enforcement authorities.

There is little to suggest that this situation has changed since 2005. The Obama administration, in close consultation with Congress, should take a fresh look at how domestic authorities might better utilize classified imaging satellites, taking into account both the findings of Mr. Hall’s panel and the legal and privacy concerns that rallied opposition to the NAO. One approach might be to place law enforcement in a special category of users whose requests for data would be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny. The administration also should examine whether the Civil Applications Committee process can be enhanced to support an expanded customer base or whether some other entity might be better suited to that role.