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Homeland Security kills LE spy satellite program

By Josh Meyer
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has decided to kill a controversial Bush administration program to use U.S. spy satellites to collect domestic intelligence for counter-terrorism, law enforcement and security, a senior Homeland Security official said Monday evening.

The National Applications Office program was established in 2007 to provide up-to-the-minute electronic intelligence to local and state law enforcement. But it has been delayed due to concerns by privacy and civil liberties advocates -- and by some lawmakers -- that it would intrude on Americans’ lives.

The senior Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the program is classified, said Napolitano had decided to nix it after consulting with state and local law enforcement officials and learning that they had far more pressing priorities than using satellites to collect information and eavesdrop on people.

Napolitano, who was Arizona attorney general before becoming the state’s governor, has long touted the importance of better coordination between federal authorities and their local and state counterparts.

State and local officials also had serious concerns about the program’s potential intrusiveness, according to the Homeland Security official and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Assn.

“To my knowledge, this is the first opportunity major law enforcement organizations have had to participate in this significant and complex initiative,” Bratton said in a June 21 letter to Napolitano. “In our view, the NAO is not an issue of urgency. . . . Our goal is effective sharing of law enforcement information that protects the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. . . .”

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) had recently introduced legislation that would prevent Homeland Security from using space-based satellite imagery for domestic surveillance. Harman, chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s intelligence and terrorism risk assessment subcommittee, cited privacy issues.

“Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if one of these satellites were directed on your neighborhood or home, a school or place of worship -- and without an adequate legal framework or operating procedures in place for regulating their use,” she said in a statement when she introduced her bill. “I dare say the reaction might be that Big Brother has finally arrived, and the black helicopters can’t be far behind.”

The satellites will still be used to gather information to help authorities deal with natural disasters such as hurricanes, and to support security planning for designated “national special security events,” such as political conventions and the Super Bowl, the senior Homeland Security official said.

Homeland Security will focus on working with local and state authorities on sharing information and on expanding a pilot program launched by the LAPD to get front-line officers to better collect and share intelligence with each other and Washington, the senior official said.

Bratton agreed. “We believe that, at this time, it is these efforts that should be the priority versus the establishment of the NAO,” he wrote as the representative of 56 major U.S. police departments.

Michael P. Downing, the LAPD’s deputy chief for counter-terrorism and criminal intelligence, participated in the recent discussions with Homeland Security as the chiefs’ association representative of police intelligence commanders. He said using the satellites to collect intelligence would have been extremely complicated, and rife with privacy and civil liberties concerns.

“What we’re saying is that we have all these other issues that we need to get fixed,” Downing said in an interview. “It’s not dead, but de-prioritized, and we support that.”

The Homeland Security official said, however, that the program is dead: “They are not going to establish the office, period. They are focusing on the priorities that the state and locals have identified.”

Napolitano’s decision was first reported by the Associated Press on its website. Asked for comment, Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said: “Secretary Napolitano began a review of the NAO early in her tenure, during which time the department engaged directly for the first time with our state and local intelligence partners on this issue. We expect to announce the results of that review shortly.”

Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times