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Newsday - Politician Blasts Chertoff On Spy Satellite Plans

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Newsday - Politician Blasts Chertoff On Spy Satellite Plans

Carol Eisenburg

A top Congressional overseer has blasted Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for failing to inform him about plans to use spy satellites to gather information for domestic homeland security and law enforcement.

The Aug. 22 letter from House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) chastised Chertoff for not advising his committee about the new program, slated to begin Oct. 1, saying "the release of important information to the public without prior notification to this committee is unacceptable."

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the committee's ranking Republican, who also said he learned about it last week in The Wall Street Journal. But King said he did not share Thompson's concerns about the program's misuse, saying, "I think we need more programs like this to defeat terrorism."

The letter represents the most pointed criticism to date from lawmakers and privacy advocates about a plan to give civilian agencies access to military satellites.

Traditionally, the images produced by such satellites are used overseas and for scientific and environmental studies in this country. But officials say that harnessing high-tech technology for Homeland Security would help it enhance border security, guard infrastructure and respond more effectively to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

One former Homeland Security official said that the technology had been used episodically for the last 15 years to assess damage after domestic floods and earthquakes, although the process was often informal and haphazard.

"This new process would cut through delays and confusion about how to request the assets," said George Foresman, former undersecretary for preparedness. "But it would not diminish the need for case-by-case legal review."

Administration officials insisted yesterday that key members of Congress, including members of Appropriations, Intelligence and Homeland Security committees had been briefed. "We have demonstrated complete transparency ... and we'll continue to do so," said Homeland Security spokesman William Knocke.

But Thompson disputed that in his letter, and demanded assurances the program "will be operating within the confines of the Constitution." To answer concerns about civil liberties, he also requested progress reports every two weeks.

Several privacy advocates seconded the need for measures to ensure accountability.

"Right now, it's hard to know exactly what DHS has in mind," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "If they're talking about using this for emergency relief and border protection, that's relatively straightforward. But is that the complete program or is it one step in a much more ambitious plan?"

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