Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 17, 2009

DHS National Applications Office (NAO) Update

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Privacy and Security,Technology for HLS — by Philip J. Palin on May 17, 2009

(The following is a guest feature. More information on the NAO and Peter J. Brown is available in a post immediately below)

Prodded by members of the House Homeland Security Committee in particular, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano initiated a review of the National Applications Office (NAO) on April 1. Among other things, NAO is designated as the chief source of satellite imagery in support of homeland security, and, state, local, and tribal law enforcement operations.

NAO is overseen by the Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis / Chief Intelligence Officer at DHS. President Obama has nominated Philip Mudd to succeed Mr. Allen in this position.

“The NAO charter, signed by the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Defense, Interior, as well as the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General, certifies that the NAO complies with all existing laws, including all applicable privacy and civil liberties standards. The NAO is prepared to begin operations to support civil and Homeland security domains. This program is another step in the right direction to leverage geospatial intelligence as we work to secure the Homeland,” stated Mr. Allen last fall.

Last November, a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — “National Applications Office: Certification of Compliance With Legal, Privacy, and Civil Liberties Standards Needs to Be More Fully Justified” — challenged that assertion and raised questions about unresolved legal and policy issues. Many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, government watchdog and civil rights organizations remain unconvinced that a suitable set of checks and balances are in place so that the NAO can go about effectively processing requests for satellite imagery, and then either approving and rejecting them in turn in support of law enforcement operations — engaging in satellite surveillance while upholding an individual’s civil rights, right to privacy, and other legal rights under existing law.

DHS responded late last week to a number of questions, we posed in order to help determine where things stand now. Here are the unedited responses to our questions.

— What is the status of NAO Operations today?

The National Applications Office (NAO) has not yet initiated operations. Secretary Napolitano is reviewing all aspects of the NAO program. The NAO will not begin operations until the Secretary and the other four signatories (Secretaries of Defense and Interior, AG, DNI) to the NAO Charter have approved the NAO to do so.

— Questions have been raised about “DHS Earth” and how this
project overlaps with NAO. Has DHS examined this and what is the recommendation from DHS concerning this situation?

DHS Earth provides a “Google Earth” based platform for the provision of some general layers of information that are relevant to DHS agency use.

DHS Earth is solely a dissemination method and analytic tool for some uses and users. To the extent DHS Earth has controls in place to protect individual privacy, civil rights and civil liberties, it could provide a good dissemination means for some unclassified NAO products in the future, consistent with all other proper use requirements under law and policy.

By contrast, NAO was established to meet the needs of non-traditional intelligence users by facilitating access to national intelligence capabilities by such users. NAO will also provide analytical capabilities for the many non-traditional users who do not have such specialized capabilities themselves. As a component of the federal government, NAO is necessarily bound by applicable laws, regulations, policies and procedures as it performs its mission. These multiple layers of safeguards are designed to ensure that all NAO operations respect and preserve the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties of the American public.

— Regarding the NGA Support Team (NST) embedded within DHS which facilitates NGA’s collaboration with DHS, what role does – or will – the NAO play with the NST in developing an effective and elastic common operational picture (COP) for local law enforcement as part of the Homeland Security Information Network?

Through the NST, NGA will partner closely with NAO to support the information requirements of NAO customers. In addition, NGA has a long-standing history of providing geospatial intelligence to both federal government and non-federal government customers. It has well-established, time-tested procedures in place for ensuring that it meets its customer needs in the best way possible, within all legal and policy boundaries. Through the NST, NGA is sharing its corporate knowledge and experience with NAO to ensure that NAO also acts efficiently, legally, and properly in all its operations.

Under current law, NAO is precluded from working on law enforcement issues until the Secretary has certified that NAO meets all applicable privacy and civil liberties standards, and that certification has been reviewed by GAO, with results communicated to the Congress. NAO future plans are premised on handling customer requests and providing requested information through the mechanisms that customers use, and not creating new delivery methods. NGA, through the NST, will be a key partner in meeting that objective.

— And how does this COP-related activity relate or tie into broader efforts at DHS to ensure that layered geospatial visualization supports critical infrastructure protection at the local level via an open architecture-based and enterprise-based approach accessed across all components of DHS?

The National Operations Center (NOC) is in charge of the DHS COP. If the NOC requests geospatial support from the NAO, those requests will be handled consistent with all legal, privacy, and civil rights/civil liberties concerns and guidelines.

— Is the current satellite imagery analysis capability of the FEMA Mapping and Analysis Center deemed adequate? If not, what is being done to address this situation? How is the uncertainty surrounding NAO impacting FEMA in this regard?

NAO’s current status has not had a direct impact on FEMA’s capabilities because FEMA is directly serviced by NGA and others for current imagery needs.

— Can you comment on the status of the proposed shift of the Civil Applications Committee from Interior to DHS?

The Civil Applications Committee (CAC) itself will not shift from
Interior to DHS. The functions of the CAC will transition to the NAO, per the requirements of the NAO Charter. The NAO charter spells out that when these functions shift, the CAC and its Charter will sunset and the former CAC functions would be fully integrated into the NAO.

— Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued an RFI for Multi-role Enforcement Aircraft (MEA) last year. Is there a mechanism in place whereby the imagery and other sensor data gathered by DHS aircraft or Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) is shared with local law enforcement?

The MEA and UAS programs fall under CBP – please contact the CBP Public Affairs office at 202-344-1780. (Update: In early May, CBP issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for up to 40 MEA’s for use by CBP’s Air and Marine Office. The goal is to procure commercially-available turboprop aircraft primarily for maritime and ground surveillance missions as well as for tracking other aircraft. The RFP requests MEA support for other missions as well.)

— Is the growing conflict along the US – Mexico border changing the debate over NAO or triggering any discussion of possible changes to NAO or the (potential for) imagery-sharing raised in Question #8?

The Secretary has made no decision regarding NAO missions at this time.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 17, 2009 @ 7:22 am

Thanks Peter for great questions and thanks Phil for post. More later!

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