Local and federal agencies are to have vastly expanded access to information gathered from spy satellites in the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reports.
Information from "some of the U.S.'s most powerful intelligence-gathering tools" will soon be at the disposal of a wide array of law enforcement agencies at all levels of government, reports Robert Block in the Journal Wednesday. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell decided to increase access to the spy data earlier this year and asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to facilitate access to the spy data by civilian agencies and law enforcement.
The move to turn spy satellites on American citizens raises legal questions because the use of such data for law enforcement is "largely uncharted territory." Even the officials behind the move were unsure of its legal implications, the Journal reports.
"There is little if any policy, guidance or procedures regarding the collection, exploitation and dissemination of domestic MASINT," noted a 2005 study from the US intelligence community, which recommended access to spy satellites. MASINT, or Measurement and Signatures Intelligence, is a particular kind of spy-satellite data that would become available to law enforcement for the first time.
According to defense experts, the Journal reports, MASINT uses radar, lasers, infrared, electromagnetic data and other technologies to see through cloud cover, forest canopies and even concrete to create images or gather data.
"The full capabilities of these systems are unknown outside the intelligence community, because they are among the most closely held secrets in government," Block writes. "Some civil-liberties activists worry that without proper oversight, only those inside the National Application Office will know what is being monitored from space.
"You are talking about enormous power," Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel and director of the Project on Freedom, Security and Technology for the Center for Democracy and Technology told the paper. "Not only is the surveillance they are contemplating intrusive and omnipresent, it's also invisible. And that's what makes this so dangerous."
DHS intelligence chief Charles Allen "says the department is cognizant of the civil-rights and privacy concerns, which is why he plans to take time before providing law-enforcement agencies with access to the data. He says DHS will have a team of lawyers to review requests for access or use of the systems."