Space-Based Domestic Spying: Kicking Civil Liberties to the Curb


Tom Burghardt
Antifascist Calling
November 10, 2008

Last month, I reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) space-based domestic spy program run by that agency’s National Applications Office (NAO) had gone live October 1.

Federal Computer Week reports that Charles Allen, DHS’ Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis, told the 5th annual GEOINT Symposium on geospatial intelligence in Nashville late last month that, "DHS’ imagery requirements are significantly greater, in number and scope, than they were at the department’s creation, and will continue to grow at an accelerating rate as the department’s mission-space evolves."

Indeed during Hurricane Ike, U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the first time flew the Predator B unmanned aerial vehicle in "support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s relief efforts," the insider tech publication reported.

As readers are well aware, the Predator B carries out "targeted assassinations" of "terrorist suspects" across Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The deployment of the robotic killing machines in the United States for "disaster management" is troubling to say the least and a harbinger of things to come.

Despite objections by Congress and civil liberties groups DHS, in close collaboration with the ultra-spooky National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the agency that develops and maintains America’s fleet of military spy satellites, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) that analyzes military imagery and generates mapping tools, are proceeding with the first phase of the controversial domestic spying program.

NAO will coordinate how domestic law enforcement and "disaster relief" agencies such as FEMA will use satellite imagery intelligence (IMINT) generated by military spy satellites. As I wrote earlier this year, unlike commercial satellites, their military cousins are far more flexible, have greater resolution and therefore possess more power to monitor human activity.

Testifying before the House Homeland Security committee in September, Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, called for a moratorium on the domestic use of military spy satellites until key questions were answered. Steinhardt said, "Congress needs to act before this potentially powerful surveillance tool is turned inward upon the American people. The domestic use of spy satellites represents a potential monster in the making, and we need to put some restraints in place before it grows into something that will trample Americans’ privacy rights."

Needless to say, a feckless Congress has done virtually nothing to halt the program. As The Wall Street Journal reported in early October, Congress’ "partial funding" of the office "in a little debated $634 billion spending measure," means that NAO is now providing federal, state and local officials "with extensive access to spy-satellite imagery."

Allen told the GEOINT Symposium that while "geospatial efforts are being coordinated across agencies," technical hurdles must be overcome in order to improve geospatial IT applications. Federal Computer Week avers,

For developing future satellite imagery capabilities, Allen recommended diversity, availability, survivability and flexibility for future systems in a satellite and modular payload system similar to what was advised by the Marino Report in July 2007 to the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office.

  • A d v e r t i s e m e n t

"It describes an architecture that allows for short time between launch as well as an option for variable modalities. This kind of diversity is what I believe will be necessary to assure adequate collection of a wide array of targets," Allen said. (Alice Lipowicz, "Geospatial Intelligence Use Grows at DHS, Official Says," Federal Computer Week, October 30, 2008)

What those "variable modalities" are were not spelled out by Federal Computer Week. However, the Marino Report was released by Chesapeake Analytics Corporation, an under-the-radar Arlington, Virginia-based private defense contractor that describes itself "as a ’boutique’ consulting firm" for senior executives "in the geospatial technology sector." The report itself was written by Defense Group Inc. (DGI), a spooky Falls Church, Virginia defense contractor for NRO and NGA. According to their website, DGI "customers" include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and "numerous Intelligence Agencies."

As we have seen however, the use of satellite imagery during "national security events" such as last summer’s political conventions in Denver and St. Paul may have aided FBI and local law enforcement in their preemptive raids on protest organizers and subsequent squelching of dissent. One wonders if this is what DGI refers to when they write that the company "performs work in the national interest, advancing public safety and national security through innovative research, analysis and applied technology"?

NAO’s launch is all the more troubling since an independent review of the program by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the department has been less than forthcoming that NAO complies with privacy laws and doesn’t violate the Posse Comitatus Act.

The 1878 law prohibits the military from playing a role in domestic law enforcement. Since the 1990s however, Posse Comitatus has been eroded significantly by both Democratic and Republican administrations, primarily in the areas of "drug interdiction," "border security" as well as "Continuity of Government" planning by U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM).

Despite objections by GAO auditors DHS securocrats held up the release of their 60-page report, citing its "sensitive nature." The September 15, 2008 report, entitled "National Applications Office. Certification of Compliance With Legal, Privacy, and Civil Liberties Standards Needs to Be More Fully Justified," is now in the public domain and was finally released November 6, two days after American national elections.

It makes for a very troubling read. In their November 6 cover letter to congressional committees, the GAO writes:

Citing a growing need to use classified satellite information for civil or domestic purposes, in 2005, an independent study group reviewed the future role of the CAC [Civil Applications Committee] and concluded that although the civil domestic users were well supported through the CAC, homeland security and law enforcement users lacked a coherent, organized, and focused process to access classified satellite information. (GAO, "National Applications Office Certification Review," GAO-09-105R, November 6, 2008)

However, the "independent study group" cited by GAO was neither independent nor predisposed towards limiting the deployment of military spy satellites for domestic "missions." Indeed that report, "Independent Study Group, Civil Applications Committee Blue Ribbon Study," (September 2005), was the product of a panel comprised solely of securocrats and defense and security contractors who stand to make a bundle on NAO. As investigative journalist Tim Shorrock revealed last year, the intelligence-sharing system to be managed by NAO,


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