Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

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August 17, 2007

Big Brother’s Eyes In The Sky

by Doug Mataconis

I’ve written before about the increased use of street-level surveillance cameras in cities like New York, now it appears that the Federal Government is increasing the use of spy satellites over American territory:

The Bush administration has approved a plan to expand domestic access to some of the most powerful tools of 21st-century spycraft, giving law enforcement officials and others the ability to view data obtained from satellite and aircraft sensors that can see through cloud cover and even penetrate buildings and underground bunkers.

A program approved by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security will allow broader domestic use of secret overhead imagery beginning as early as this fall, with the expectation that state and local law enforcement officials will eventually be able to tap into technology once largely restricted to foreign surveillance.

Administration officials say the program will give domestic security and emergency preparedness agencies new capabilities in dealing with a range of threats, from illegal immigration and terrorism to hurricanes and forest fires. But the program, described yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, quickly provoked opposition from civil liberties advocates, who said the government is crossing a well-established line against the use of military assets in domestic law enforcement.

Although the federal government has long permitted the use of spy-satellite imagery for certain scientific functions — such as creating topographic maps or monitoring volcanic activity — the administration’s decision would provide domestic authorities with unprecedented access to high-resolution, real-time satellite photos.

They could also have access to much more. A statement issued yesterday by the Department of Homeland Security said that officials envision “more robust access” not only to imagery but also to “the collection, analysis and production skills and capabilities of the intelligence community.”

The beneficiaries may include “federal, state, local and tribal elements” involved in emergency preparedness and response or “enforcement of criminal and civil laws.” The “tribal” reference was to Native Americans who conduct semiautonomous law enforcement operations on reservations.

Given the seeming public acceptance of surveillance cameras in public areas, I imagine that many people won’t have a problem with this.  The problem, though, is that there is yet another erosion of the line between domestic law enforcement and the military first established in the Posse Comitatus Act.

As KipEsquire notes, the concept is really quite simple:

The sole purpose of a military, and of military hardware, is to protect American citizens from external threats. Combating internal threats is the role of domestic law enforcement. These two purveyors of government force must be kept separate to the greatest extent possible, and the government should be required to demonstrate the most urgent and desperate need before allowing that partition to be breached. Separation of army and police is at least as important a check on oppression as are separation of church and state, co-equal branches and the federal system.

Since September 11th,  the line between the army and the police has become increasingly blurred. In some cases, this makes sense. The idea that the FBI and CIA barely shared intelligence about known terrorist threats — which, in and of itself, was the reason that the things we did know about the 9/11 hijackers before the attacks were never acted on — is, it seems absurd. If the CIA finds something out through foreign surveillance regarding a threat against the homeland, they should be allowed to share that information with law enforcement in hopes that the attack can be thwarted.

Turning the very hardware of the military and intelligence communities over to domestic law enforcement and, in effect, spying on the American public  goes a step too far, and takes us further down the road that the Posse Comitatus Act was intended to divert us from.

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3 Comments

  1. I’ve got no problems with city governments installing security cameras in public places if they feel it acts as an effective policing tool (and as long as they pay for it themselves with local taxes and keep it out of our homes and private businesses). The Feds and satellites becoming local law enforcement, however, are a different matter. Yet another horrible policy by the Bush administration…as if anyone should be surprised by that.

    Comment by UCrawford — August 17, 2007 @ 7:16 pm
  2. As Radley Balko has been documenting, Department of Homeland Security is handing out grants like candy for the paramilitarization of our police forces.

    It’s the merging of a technological survellience state with a paramilitarized police force–fed by the fears and hysteria perpetual wars–that gives you a 1984 sytle Orwellian police state. Orwell didn’t have it completely right, and he was off by 3 decades or so, but his basic premise was right on target.

    UCrawford, it’s not the security cameras per se that’s the issue, it’s the next generation of security survellience systems, like those being currently implemented in China, by US companies no less, that’s the issue. These systems, tied to facial recognition software database mining systems or RFID-enabled ID cards, would enforce absolutely conformity to the state, otherwise you couldn’t even venture out in public. If you are not carrying your RFID ID card and your face is not recognized by the system–when the system is programmed to zoom and try to identify anyone not carrying their ID card–the local paramilitarized police will then stop you and take you in for identification and questioning. You will be scanned and all that information–including the verbal questioning answers– will inputed into the system.

    Conform or expect to be a target. How would any alternative parties like the Libertarian Party even exist in such a climate. how popular would any party be that advocated practices and beliefs that would result in you being target by the survellience state?

    Comment by Kaligula — August 17, 2007 @ 10:02 pm
  3. Domestic Spying: Stretching Inches into Miles…

    Not content with the ability to secretly tap into Americans’ emails and phone calls, the Bush Administration seeks to expand its domestic-spying powers:A program approved by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Hom…

    Trackback by Buck Naked Politics — August 20, 2007 @ 7:15 am

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