Rep. Jane Harman and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are old friends – but that isn’t stopping Harman from calling out Napolitano for slow-walking an agency review of the controversial use of military satellites in U.S. airspace.
Harman, the California Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee on domestic intelligence, wants Napolitano to kill the agency’s deceptively named National Applications Office, established by the Bush administration to funnel military intelligence to local, state and federal law enforcement.
Napolitano, herself a critic of George W. Bush-era warrantless wiretapping, has been sympathetic but says she needs more time to study the issue, which doesn’t sit well with the hard-driving Harman.
“I’m not sure she’s moving ahead. She’s not handling it; she’s kicking the can down the road,” said Harman, who worries the satellites could be used to create a “Big Brother” in the sky directed willy-nilly at anyone’s house, place of worship or school.
“I want her to shut this office down — it serves no purpose,” added Harman, who has a uniquely up-close-and-personal perspective on the issue, given the recent disclosure that she was wiretapped during an espionage probe of two pro-Israel lobbyists.
“Local law enforcement isn’t clamoring for it. ... So I’m hoping she’ll shut it down with a little nudge from her buddies in Congress,” Harman said of Napolitano.
So far, the friendly pressure hasn’t worked. Napolitano included an unspecified amount of funding for the office in the “classified annex” of the fiscal 2010 department funding request — which prompted a mini-lobbying effort by Harman, the former ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee and a Clinton administration security adviser.
The former Arizona governor, whose first few months at the helm of DHS have been consumed by swine flu preparation and domestic terrorism investigations, gave her old pal a polite bureaucratic stiff-arm.
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In a June 9 letter to Pelosi, Napolitano said department officials were studying the program to see if it was useful — or posed a risk to civil liberties.
But she made no commitment to defunding it — and seemed to defend the NAO’s mission.
“Our nation is best protected when all assets at every level of government are used to analyze and share information,” Napolitano wrote.
“The intelligence community possesses unique capabilities and skills. ... It is in our national interest to make these tools available, consistent with applicable laws and policy and always mindful of the potential effects on the civil rights and privacy of American citizens and lawful residents.”
Harman, who has met with Napolitano privately on the issue, says that isn’t good enough: “If you can figure out what she’s trying to say in that letter, let me know,” said Harman, who has introduced a pair of bills that would eliminate the office and sever its funding line.
The debate over NAO has raged since former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff quietly inserted funding for the office in a 2008 appropriations bill.
Chertoff, hoping to give his agency a more active role in intelligence gathering and analysis, envisioned it as a conduit for channeling photographic and heat-sensitive imagery from military satellites to local agencies investigating drug gangs, immigration violations and possible terrorist activity.
The satellite data — which local officials need to apply for — could also be used for disaster response.
“Part of this is about DHS wanting to grow up and have a seat at the table with the intelligence community,” said James Carafano, a homeland security and intelligence expert with the conservaive Heritage Foundation.
“I think it’s essential,” said New York Rep. Peter King, ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. “This is something that could be used for fires and floods; there’s nothing secretive about it — local agencies would have to apply for the satellite… I give Secretary Napolitano credit for funding this.”
But Harman and other Democrats, including Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), see it as a much more significant threat, citing a 2008 Government Accountability Office study that found insufficient assurance the agency would “comply with applicable laws and privacy.”
Napolitano, Democratic aides say, has told other members that she is considering eliminating the office — but doesn’t want to be rushed until she can study the situation more closely.
“Acting Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Bart Johnson, at the direction of the secretary, is conducting a top-to-bottom review of the NAO program,” a Napolitano spokesman said in an e-mail.
“He is starting where Congress said the NAO should have started more than two years ago: with the department’s state, local and tribal partners” to determine if law enforcement agencies actually need data from military satellites.