[JURIST] US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff [official profile] said Friday that DHS will move forward with plans to use spy satellites as part of a domestic intelligence program designed to assist law enforcement agencies. In his response to concerns [press release; letter, PDF] by Representatives Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Jane Harman (D-CA), and Chris P. Carney (D-PA) on the progress of the DHS's National Applications Office (NAO) [DHS fact sheet], Chertoff outlined the NAO's satellite program, giving assurance that it would not impede the privacy or civil rights of American citizens. According to Chertoff, the satellites would immediately be used for scientific and non-intelligence DHS activities, including charting damage cause by hurricanes and monitoring climate changes. He also said that the program would not be used for law enforcement purposes until concerns by the House Committee on Homeland Security [official website] could be addressed. DHS says that the satellites will not be used to intercept domestic communications, but some lawmakers have pushed for greater assurance of such protection before the program is launched.
The NAO was established by DHS [WSJ report] last year to compile information obtained from intelligence satellites and a number of traditional domestic monitoring capabilities including radar, electronic signal information, and chemical detection that could be used to help law enforcement agencies. In October, however, DHS halted implementation of the program [press release], in response to Congressional concerns surrounding the office procedures and safeguards. DHS submitted answers to Congress's inquires on Thursday, but democratic legislatures said they were still unsure whether establishment of the NAO, whose budget and size remain classified, violated the Constitution. Critics of the program also cite concerns that the military's role in domestic law enforcement would become too powerful and that important civilian or scientific satellites would be used for intelligence gathering rather than their intended purposes. The Washington Post has more.