— U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has ordered a high-level review of an office intended to facilitate the use of spy satellites for domestic law enforcement purposes following a
lawmaker’s move to shut down the nascent organization.

Citing civil liberties concerns and a lack of defined legal framework for operations, U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) introduced a bill June 4 to shut down the National Applications Office (NAO), which is being established within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That same day, Harman introduced a bill along with Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) to prohibit funding of the office, which she said was sought in the classified annex to the DHS’s 2010 budget request.

The NAO, formally proposed in 2007, would facilitate expanded use of military and intelligence satellites in a domestic context; such uses of these 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
citizens. The NAO is not yet operational, DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said in a June 11 response to e-mailed questions.

In a June 4 press release, Harman said the NAO is purportedly intended to support law enforcement and border security agencies, but that law enforcement officials have not asked for the capabilities and do not believe the office is necessary. Harman chairs the House Homeland Security intelligence and terrorism risk assessment subcommittee.

“As proposed, the NAO, housed in the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, would manage the tasking of military intelligence satellites over the United States – despite the absence of a clear legal framework, legitimate Posse Comitatus concerns, and even though the Interior Department already has existing circumscribed authority to deploy satellites over large-scale public events or natural disasters,” Harman said in the release. The Posse Comitatus Act has mostly prohibited since 1878 the U.S. Defense Department from participating in law enforcement or policing activities inside the
United States

In a June 9 letter to Harman and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Napolitano defended the need for the capabilities the NAO would provide.

“I assure you that I am carefully reviewing the NAO to ensure it would be a viable program and carry out its planned mission, while safeguarding privacy and civil rights and civil liberties,” Napolitano wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided to Space News.

“The intelligence community possesses unique capabilities and skills that can be indispensable tools for non-traditional intelligence customers. It is in our national interest to make these tools available, consistent with applicable laws and policy, and always mindful of the potential effects on the civil rights and privacy of American citizens and lawful residents.”

Acting DHS Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Bart Johnson, at Napolitano’s direction, is conducting a top-to-bottom review of the NAO program, Kudwa said.

“[Johnson] is starting where Congress said the NAO should have started more than two years ago: with the Department’s state, local and tribal partners. The acting undersecretary is engaging with those partners now to determine how the NAO might meet their satellite imagery needs to protect lives and property in their communities. Once any such needs are identified by those partners, he will be working closely with the Department’s Privacy Office, Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and General Counsel to determine if they can be met legally and in strict compliance with Constitutional requirements. Once those determinations have been made, [Johnson] will make his recommendation on the future of the NAO to the Secretary.”

did not provide a target date for completion of the review.