Two years ago in London, surveillance cameras captured footage of the terrorists whose bombs killed 52 commuters and injured hundreds more. The day when such intelligence-gathering cameras stop an attack rather than record it is to be hoped for, not dreaded.
Yet some Democrats in Congress feel differently, judging from their response to a Bush-administration plan that would expand the use of satellites operated by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency as they fly over the United States. This morning, Charles E. Allen, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis, plus two other DHS officials, will appear before the House Committee on Homeland Security to defend the program — and specifically the creation of a National Applications Office within DHS that would facilitate the use of these satellites by law-enforcement personnel.
The establishment of the NAO — it formally opens its door next month — follows the recommendation of a study group assembled by the Civil Applications Committee, which for more than three decades has overseen the use of intelligence assets for non-defense purposes, such as monitoring hurricanes, floods, and volcanic activity. The panel determined that law-enforcement personnel at the federal, state, and local levels also could benefit from improved access to these satellites as they try to monitor everything from disaster-recovery efforts to potential terrorist activity. Yet there was no adequate way for them to do so: “Today, policies and practices governing the use of [intelligence-community] capabilities, many of which pre-date 9/11, discourage rather than encourage use by domestic users especially law enforcement.”
When news of the NAO hit the front page of the Wall Street Journal three weeks ago, Democrats grumbled that they hadn’t been properly informed. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, complained in a letter to DHS secretary Michael Chertoff that he “had to rely on media reports to gain information about this endeavor.” Much of today’s hearing may focus on this issue. In a letter yesterday, Chertoff apologized to Thompson for his department’s failure to brief him personally. Administration officials should have shown more foresight in recognizing that the NAO could prove to be controversial — and taken special steps to avoid an unwarranted fuss.
The public’s image of spy satellites is largely informed by film and television, in which these eyes in the sky do everything from peer through walls to look over Chinese takeout menus. Government officials refuse to talk about specific capabilities, but the performance of the satellites that the NAO will help coordinate are closer to those that power Google Earth than to anything imagined by the script writers of 24. Moreover, the administration has promised to employ safeguards that will protect basic civil liberties.
It’s impossible to know whether the NAO will ever assist in foiling a terrorist plot. But it would be a shame — and a needless danger — if this ready resource weren’t marshaled.