Dems put brakes on DHS satellite initiative

Democratic members of the House Homeland Security Committee yesterday asked congressional appropriators to hold off funding for the Homeland Security Department's new office for domestic satellite surveillance set to open Oct. 1.

The department's new National Applications Office is set to begin offering satellite information on request for homeland security, including preventing and responding to severe weather systems, natural disasters and terrorist attacks. But the Democrats contend there are not enough legal protections in place to govern how, and for what purpose, the satellites will be deployed.

"We are gravely concerned by the department's lack of progress in creating the appropriate legal and operational safeguards necessary for ensuring that military spy satellites do not become the 'Big Brother in the Sky' that some in the privacy and civil liberties community have described," wrote the 17 Democrats in a Sept. 26 letter to the chairman and ranking Republican of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

Government contractors are heavily engaged in satellite work for defense and civilian agencies to meet needs for weather-related information and for intelligence and battlefield communications.

The committee's Democratic leaders are calling for a moratorium on funding for the new office and do not want the spy satellite program to begin operations until there is assurance that legal safeguards are in place, Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote in a news release.

With serious privacy issues at stake, the Democrats are asking House and Senate conferees on the fiscal 2008 Homeland Security spending bill to hold funding for the spy satellite office until DHS completes development of the legal framework and the House Homeland Security Committee reviews the documents, the letter states.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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