Sky snoops

August 19, 2007

Should have seen this one coming.

Once the federal government had rationalized its authority to violate the privacy of Americans by tapping their phones, reading their e-mail, surveying their library selections and poking through their bank records, it was only a matter of time before the Department of Homeland Security would point spy satellite cameras intended for foreign enemies into the private lives of Americans as well.

Indeed, the country is becoming so inured to the Big Brother tactics of the Bush administration, news of this intrusive new eye in domestic skies has provoked little outrage. Congress has apparently given the plan its blessing, totally abdicating its oversight role.

When they return to Washington next month, lawmakers should halt the program before it begins, and conduct hearings on the dangers of overruling the long-standing policy against using the American military against its fellow citizens.

As usual, the Bush administration is trying to sell domestic use of these sky snoops as an anti-terrorism tool, presumably aiming at those would-be offenders who are homegrown. Beyond that, officials note, these powerful satellite sensors can also be used to find drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. It's hard to quarrel with those purposes, but who says where it ends?

Spy satellites have served benign civilian purposes for decades, including mapmaking, conducting environmental studies and assessing damage after natural disasters. The administration has decided to broadly expand satellite use, however, to include not only security functions but to assist federal, state, local and tribal authorities in the enforcement of criminal and civil laws.

Effectively, there is no limit on the use of this high-tech equipment, which includes visual and nonvisual capabilities that can sense electromagnetic activity, radioactivity and chemical traces.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, Congress has signed off on this expanded use of spy satellites and provided funding for it to begin this fall. An aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed the committee was aware of the program and was monitoring it. Yet, there appears to have been no plan to make it public until The Wall Street Journal broke the story last week.

Congressional acquiescence in violating the freedom of innocent Americans not to be spied upon by their government is outrageous - but somehow not surprising coming from a group of Democratic-led lawmakers who recently got rolled by President Bush on the issue of domestic wiretapping without court approval.

This Congress claims it is not going to be a rubber stamp for Mr. Bush, as its Republican predecessors were. If so, the first place to apply that principle would be to stop sacrificing fundamental freedoms for the false promise of greater security.

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