The Department of Homeland Security will proceed with the first phase of a controversial satellite-surveillance program, even though an independent review found the department hasn’t yet ensured the program will comply with privacy laws.
Congress provided partial funding for the program in a little-debated $634 billion spending measure that will fund the government until early March. For the past year, the Bush administration had been fighting Democratic lawmakers over the spy program, known as the National Applications Office.
In June, 33 groups sent a letter (pdf) to Congress urging members not to fund the National Applications Office. “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.
Members of Congress have also questioned the privacy and civil liberty implications of this program. (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 Wall Street Journal’s story shows the Members and public have reasons to be concerned:
A new 60-page Government Accountability Office report said the department “lacks assurance that NAO operations will comply with applicable laws and privacy and civil liberties standards,” according to a person familiar with the document. The report, which is unclassified but considered sensitive, hasn’t been publicly released, but was described and quoted by several people who have read it.
The report cites gaps in privacy safeguards. The department, it found, lacks controls to prevent improper use of domestic-intelligence data by other agencies and provided insufficient assurance that requests for classified information will be fully reviewed to ensure it can be legally provided.
You can read DHS’s side of the issue at the agency’s Leadership Journal blog. The Department of Homeland Security wrote a post in July about why the NAO is necessary for security. I spoke about this issue with Law and Disorder Radio in April, and you can listen to the archived show here.