Disclosure: I work with several of these groups on privacy and civil liberty issues.
Thirty-three groups, including the Center for National Security Studies, Republican Liberty Caucus, and Liberty Coalition, sent a letter (pdf) to Congress urging members not to fund the National Applications Office, which would greatly expand the domestic use of military technology. “Satellite imagery and the other vast capacities at issue are powerful weapons that have been used against our nation’s enemies and that are now poised to be used against our nation’s citizens. Congress must ensure that neither DHS nor any other agency is entrusted with such vast and unsupervised powers,” the groups said.
The Bush administration, especially the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees the NAO), has been heavily criticized for its unilateral decision to create and operate this new domestic surveillance office even though Congress has delayed the office’s launch because of significant privacy and civil liberty questions. (In September, the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing: “Turning Spy Satellites on the Homeland: the Privacy and Civil Liberties Implications of the National Applications Office.”)
The groups said they “We question DHS’ claim that its controversial plan to expand surveillance of the homeland and the American people by military personnel and technology is simply information or equipment sharing.” The Department of Homeland Security has emphasized that the military technology overseen by the NAO could be used for “the prevention and mitigation of, preparation for, response to, and recovery from natural or man-made disasters, including terrorism, and other threats to the homeland.” The groups continued:
Congress should reject the current plan to expand the use of these vast surveillance powers against Americans in response to requests from federal, state, local and tribal officials, based on the promise that DHS will “brief Congress before moving to support law enforcement.” The idea that this sea change in the use and dissemination of such technologies should be pre-approved based on the assurance of a later oral briefing is simply unacceptable. The rights and interests at stake are too important for such an ad hoc approach. Indeed, the agency’s insistence that such promises are enough underscores the short shrift the administration has given to the substantial privacy objections raised about this proposal since it came to light last August, concerns DHS summarily dismisses as unfounded. Everything we have seen and heard thus far indicates that DHS is reading governing statutes as well as applicable judicial decisions very narrowly.
[…] at the Committee’s hearing in September the Department’s privacy and civil liberties appointees stressed that they are “not practicing as lawyers” in their schedule-C posts and thus could not really testify about what privacy and civil liberties standards might be applicable. Accordingly, we have no confidence that the agency’s Privacy or Civil Liberties Impact Assessments, which have not yet been made public, fully consider the legal questions associated with use of surveillance technology or even take into account Supreme Court precedent[.]