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.