Bush’s prying eyes in the sky

The Bush administration plans to give state and local law-enforcement and other domestic agencies access to intelligence from military spy satellites and airborne sensors.

Looked at one way, the program makes a certain amount of sense. We’ve paid for this information, a limited number of federal agencies already have it in hand, so we might as well put it to good use.

The eye-in-the-sky intelligence presumably would be used in combating terrorism, smuggling and illegal immigration and tracking assorted natural disasters like floods, wildfires and hurricanes.

Domestic agencies have had access to satellite information before, but sharing it was done on a case-by-case basis and usually for such innocuous purposes as mapmaking and geological surveys.

And these same agencies have access, like the public, to commercial satellite imagery, but military satellites provide real-time images of much higher resolution and have the capability through radar to peer into buildings and underground bunkers.

There is some question how really useful this information will be because the point of spy satellites is to look into places where we can’t go and see for ourselves, which is not a problem in our own country.

The full details of the program, which was formally agreed to in the spring and is to start in the fall, aren’t publicly known and, like other Bush administration surveillance programs, there may be a lot more to this one than we or Congress is being told.

The Department of Homeland Security, which is coordinating the program with the director of national intelligence, promises domestic agencies “robust access” to both the imagery and also “the collection, analysis and production skills and capabilities of the intelligence communities.” In other words, the spy agencies will be collecting and analyzing domestic intelligence.

Homeland Security promises rigorous oversight, but this program cries out for independent and especially congressional oversight because it fudges, and comes close to crossing, the longstanding American principle that military- and foreign-intelligence assets should not be used for domestic law enforcement.