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Democratic Congressmen and the civil liberties crowd are cheering an Obama Administration decision to kill a controversial spy satellite program at the Department of Homeland Security.

As The Wall Street Journal reports:

The program would have provided federal, state and local officials with extensive access to spy-satellite imagery — but no eavesdropping capabilities— to assist with emergency response and other domestic-security needs, such as identifying where ports or border areas are vulnerable to terrorism.

It would have expanded an Interior Department satellite program, which will continue to be used to assist in natural disasters and for other limited security purposes such as photographing sporting events. The Wall Street Journal first revealed the plans to establish the program, known as the National Applications Office, in 2007.


The plans to shutter the office signal Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s decision to refocus the department’s intelligence on ensuring that state and local officials get the threat information they need, the official said. She also wants to make the department the central point in the government for receiving and analyzing terrorism tips from around the country, the official added.

Lawmakers alerted Ms. Napolitano of their concerns about the program-that the program would violate the Fourth amendment right to be protected from unreasonable searches-before her confirmation hearing.

Readers will note that Secretary Napolitano’s plans to “refocus” her department are short on details. Getting intelligence information to local and state agencies should be a primary goal of DHS, but the devil’s in the details. One reason the Bush Administration pressed for a National Applications Office at the agency was to flatten bureaucratic lines, allowing intel organizations to funnel data to local law enforcement and disaster management agencies.

As a friend of this blog reminds us, the need for an applications office (or similar department) became painfully evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 1995. Faced with incredible devastation across a broad section of the Gulf South, local officials begged the federal government for satellite imagery–and other intel products–that would allow them to pin-point the hardest-hit areas, and concentrate relief services in those communities.

In theory, there were mechanisms in place four years ago to declassify the information, and provide it to state and local leaders. But the system didn’t work. Our friend made a courtesy call to his counterpart at DHS, and discovered that the promised imagery and other information was being held up by various intel bottlenecks.

Over the days that followed, a lot of people at DHS, the Pentagon, NORTHCOM and various intel agencies worked to ease the logjam, and disaster managers finally began to receive the information they needed. But the system remained broken; our friend was part of a team that spent months trying to fix the process, and prevent similar problems in the future. The National Applications Office was part of the “reform effort.”

But Democrats on the Hill viewed it as a threat to civil liberties, and so did the ACLU. Never mind that the “local” consumers had no “eavesdropping” capabilities–in other words, they had no real ability to task the system, so concerns about “domestic spying” and invasion of privacy were overstated, at best.

Meanwhile, the program had legitimate applications in such functions as border and port security–where broad area imagery coverage is useful, even essential. Without the applications office, getting that information may become more difficult; the new DHS division was supposed to coordinate support across the intelligence community. Who knows? Perhaps Ms. Napolitano will return her agency to the “bad old days” (before Katrina) when the support coordination was assigned to a single, over-worked employee.

The DHS announcement came just days after an upstate New York TV station reported that a Predator drone is now patrolling part of the U.S.-Canadian border. Operated by DHS and the Customs Service, the UAV monitors traffic on Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and land areas adjacent to those waterways. According to WWTI-TV, the operation is part of a three-week evaluation, to determine the drone’s suitability for law enforcement.

Obviously, a UAV–controlled directly by DHS–poses a far greater threat to individual liberties than a satellite that can’t be tasked by law enforcement. But Predator flight operations (and their associated ground stations) mean jobs in local communities, so politicians aren’t too worried about a possible invasion of privacy, or domestic spying. Call it selective outrage–or hypocrisy.

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