Unresolved privacy and civil liberties issues continue to prevent the DHS National Applications Office (NAO) from engaging in any of its proposed law enforcement-related satellite surveillance activity. However, the NAO continues to evolve in important ways. While the NAO, which was formally launched just over a year ago as the Department of Homeland Security’s central satellite data and imagery clearinghouse, has some funding, it still is not operational, according to DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner.
NAO operates no spy satellites, but it is intended to facilitate the use of, access to, and requests for geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT), and Electronic Signals Intelligence (ELINT) from both national and commercial surveillance systems for many new and non-traditional civil agency users. Sounds good on paper, but, absent suitable transparency, firm judicial oversight, and accountability regarding methods and procedures, Congress appears neither ready nor willing to let NAO offer satellite-based surveillance data to civilian law enforcement agencies.
DHS remains optimistic. “The NAO will ensure a consistent, repeatable process for requests from these civil agencies of this information, while including required reviews for the protection of sources and methods, privacy, civil rights and civil liberties. The NAO will advocate and broker agency requirements with the appropriate intelligence community functional manager,” according to Keehner.
However, the Government Accountability Office’s “National Applications Office Certification Review,” issued on November 6, simply states that most if not all of the key concerns expressed over the past year by members of Congress and others remain unresolved.
Current funding levels for NAO are intended only to sustain it, and additional funds may become available in the next fiscal year. The failure to gain GAO certification underscores the considerable uncertainty surrounding NAO at this point. If the OK is given to NAO to initiate law enforcement support operations, NAO will probably require more staff and a larger budget.
Progress Despite Setbacks
While its law enforcement support role awaits further clarification and approval, NAO continues to evolve. Avoiding any duplication of effort with respect to satellite imagery delivery and distribution is one of NAO’s top priorities.
“As the NAO matures, appropriate linkages with key DHS offices such as OEC, as well as appropriate linkages with offices in other agencies, will be important to pursue and put in place. No specific plans exist at this time,” says Keehner. “NAO will participate with all relevant emergency response and coordination plans of its customer and provider agencies to ensure emergency services arrive to those customers in a timely manner.”
NAO’s civil support activity means, among other things, that FEMA will become a major consumer of NAO services. Regardless, NAO is now a firmly fixed entity when the need for such an entity was never clearly defined nor even discussed in great detail in the first place, at least not in the context of the disaster response or emergency management priorities or other FEMA-related performance improvements, which were identified following Hurricane Katrina.
As NAO gears up to make multiple satellite-based civil support applications available for disaster response and monitoring purposes including such things as the rapid identification of emergency ingress and egress routes etc, NAO’s support role in any large-scale natural disaster or terrorist attack may require additional updating of the National Emergency Communications Plan, the National Response Framework, and possibly the National Incident Management System, given constraints imposed by certain CBRN scenarios. For more on this, consider reading “Why the Country Needs the National Applications Office” which was written in July for the DHS online “Leadership Journal” by Charlie Allen, DHS Under Secretary for Intelligence & Analysis.
With its yet to be approved local law enforcement support operations, NAO will propel DHS directly onto the traditional turf of the Department of Justice, and how these two agencies will interact as a result remains to be seen.
Peter J. Brown, a satellite technology journalist from Maine, often addresses emergency management and disaster response issues. His commentary on the expanding role of satellites in global preparedness, surveillance, and response appears in the October 2008 issue of “Disaster Medicine & Public Health Preparedness”, a journal of the American Medical Association.