WASHINGTON — U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano announced June 23 she plans to close an agency office intended to facilitate the use of spy satellites for domestic law enforcement purposes.
Napolitano said in a statement the decision to shut down the department’s National Applications Office (NAO) follows a top-level review under way since February and will not affect federal, state and local use of satellite imagery permitted under existing policy.
“Over the past several months, we have worked closely with our state, local and territorial homeland security partners to determine how our department can best support their priorities,” Napolitano said in the release. “This action will allow us to focus our efforts on more effective information sharing programs that better meet the needs of law enforcement, protect the civil liberties and privacy of all Americans, and make our country more secure.”
Led by DHS acting Under Secretary of Intelligence and Analysis Bart Johnson, the review involved direct consultation with state, local and tribal homeland security partners to assess the program’s potential effectiveness. After meeting with several major national law enforcement and intelligence organizations, Johnson recommended ending the NAO program in favor of more urgent DHS priorities – including state and local fusion centers and the National Suspicious Reporting Initiative.
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. DHS said such uses would continue.
“Secretary Napolitano’s decision will not affect the ability of the Department or its state, local and tribal partners to use satellite imaging as currently allowed under existing policy in order to meet its many other responsibilities,” DHS said in the June 23 statement.
The NAO was supposed to be up and running in the fall of 2007, but was held up when several lawmakers demanded assurances that the office would not be used to spy on U.S. citizens.
Napolitano’s decision comes on the heels of a move by U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) to shut down the nascent organization. Citing a lack of civil liberties protections and a poorly defined legal framework for operations, Harman and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) introduced a bill June 4 to eliminate funding for the NAO, which was requested in DHS’s 2010 budget submission to Congress.
During a June 24 hearing of the House Homeland Security intelligence and terrorism risk assessment subcommittee, at which Johnson testified, Harman praised Napolitano’s move to dissolve the office.
“With her wise decision made last week to shut down the NAO, DHS has recognized what a number of us have advocated for the past two years,” said Harman, who chairs the subcommittee.
In a statement released June 23, Harman described the NAO as “an ill-conceived vestige of the ‘dark side’ counterterrorism policies of the Bush years,” and said that the legal and constitutional questions it raised could never be adequately addressed.
During the hearing, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) commended Napolitano’s decision for endorsing the committee’s long-held position.
“From the very beginning, our members were the first to shine a light on this poorly conceived proposal that lacked the necessary civil liberties protections or law enforcement utility,” Thompson said in a June 23 statement.