U.S. government officials are “in the final stages” of assembling a charter that will govern a new organization within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

being created to handle civil-agency requests for spy satellite data, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

Speaking here at the Geoint 2007 Symposium, Charles E. Allen, assistant secretary of homeland security for intelligence and analysis, said the effort to draft a charter for the planned National Applications Office (NAO) involves his agency, the U.S. departments of Interior and Justice, and “lots of lawyers.” He did not say when the charter is expected to be finalized.

The NAO has generated controversy due to concerns that it will widen the use of the nation’s highly capable spy satellites for domestic law enforcement purposes, and that the privacy of U.S. citizens will be compromised as a result. In response to congressional complaints that the NAO lacked a legal framework and concept of operations, the DHS recently delayed its establishment, which had been scheduled for Oct. 1.

U.S. spy satellite imagery is routinely used domestically for disaster mitigation, environmental management and security planning for special events such as international summits. Traditionally, requests to use spy data for these purposes have been handled by the Interior Department’s Civil Application Committee.

Donald Kerr, U.S. principle deputy director of national intelligence, said the Civil Applications Committee is not able to facilitate access to data from spy satellites for law enforcement purposes.

“The proposal that’s moving forward …

has as its principle activities three things: support the scientific community, continue to support the civil agencies as they do their job, and to study ways in which it could serve to link law enforcement 

 and provide that assistance as well,” Kerr said. “That in fact was proposed in the stand-up language as something to study and develop. Unfortunately when it was first expressed to the press, it wasn’t clear the fact that they would study and do some thinking before that happened.”

Kerr said the NAO will not change the rules governing the use of spy satellite data domestically.

Allen said homeland security and law enforcement applications would be covered in the NAO charter.

He said the document will clearly spell out “what is permissible and what is not” regarding domestic use of spy satellites.

Requests to use data will be subjected to “layers and layers of review” to guard against invasions of privacy, Allen said. He said

there has never been a case in which the domestic use of national technical means – a government euphemism for spy satellites – was found to have violated the privacy of U.S. citizens.

Allen also noted in his speech that national technical means

have been used to map the entire border between Mexico and the southwestern United States.

More recently, they have been used to help combat the wildfires that have ravaged southern California, officials here said.