New Office to Usher Domestic Use of Spy Satellites Domestic security officials will get access, for the first time, to information from surveillance satellites. The decision was made by the Director of National Intelligence.
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New Office to Usher Domestic Use of Spy Satellites

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New Office to Usher Domestic Use of Spy Satellites

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New Office to Usher Domestic Use of Spy Satellites

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The Bush administration has decided to expand government's use of information from U.S. spy satellites. They want to begin using the images for homeland security and domestic law enforcement. Officials say the change is intended to help monitor U.S. borders in coastal areas. But it also has raised some serious privacy concerns.

We'll have two reports. The first is from NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER: For more than 30 years, domestic agencies have had access to images gathered by U.S. spy satellites. But for the most part, the information has been used for scientific research or to monitor things such as hurricanes and volcanic activity.

Ever since the attacks of 9/11, however, intelligence officials have talked about how that information might also be used to help tighten domestic security. One of those officials was Charles Allen, who now heads intelligence activities at the Department of Homeland Security. Allen says there are lots of potential uses, especially when protecting the border.

Mr. CHARLES ALLEN (Chief Intelligence Officer, Department of Homeland Security): The ability to harden and make impervious as possible to people wanting to do harm, dangerous people coming into our country or bringing dangerous materials in our country, and to be able to also to understand and look at ports and port securities and potential port vulnerabilities and consequences.

FESSLER: He says the images can also be used to monitor security at major sites such as bridges and dams. So this fall, a new office will be set up inside the Homeland Security Department, which will act as something of a clearinghouse for all domestic agencies seeking to use spy satellite data. Allen says there will be guidelines in place on how the information can be used and what legal requirements need to be met.

Mr. ALLEN: This is not going to be anything unusual. It's going to be simply expansion of current activities and a more formalized way of doing some of the things that have been done ad hoc.

FESSLER: Allen says he hopes next year to expand use of the imagery on what he calls a limited, case-by-case basis to domestic law enforcement. That change has privacy advocates especially worried.

Mr. JIM DEMPSEY (Political Director, Center for Democracy and Technology): We're talking about using very powerful technology directed on American soil.

FESSLER: Jim Dempsey is policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Mr. DEMPSEY: It will inevitably pick up information about U.S. citizens, and that's what calls for protection under the Constitution. That's what calls for judicial review and a real search warrant.

FESSLER: Dempsey says it's not at all clear what systems will be in place to prevent abuse. Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, says it might very well make sense to use spy satellites to help protect the country.

Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Director, Project on Government Secrecy, Federation of American Scientists): I would say, though, that any increase in government authority and intelligence capability ought to be matched by a corresponding increase in oversight. And, right now, the oversight capability seems a bit anemic.

FESSLER: He noted the recent decision by Congress to extend the administration's ability to conduct warrantless wiretaps. Homeland Security's Charles Allen says Americans have nothing to worry about, that his operation will be overseen by government auditors as well as by Congress.

Keith Hall, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the spy satellites, says there's another reason people shouldn't be overly concerned.

Mr. KEITH HALL (Director, National Reconnaissance Office): The capabilities we're talking about here really cannot be used to target an individual, if you will. You just can do so much when you are 200 miles up in space in terms of what you can discern about what's going on on the face of the Earth.

FESSLER: Hall headed a 2005 study that recommended exactly what the government is now doing. He says even with the limitations, spy satellites can be a very effective tool when trying to monitor activity at remote areas of the border or to find potential evacuation routes during a disaster.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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