updated 10/1/2007 7:55:54 PM ET 2007-10-01T23:55:54

A program to employ spy satellites for certain domestic uses is on hold indefinitely because of privacy concerns.

Congress has already devoted the money for the program, and it was set to launch at the beginning of this month. But some lawmakers demanded more information about its legal basis and what protections are in place to ensure the government is not peering into Americans’ homes.

As a result, the Homeland Security Department is not formally moving ahead with the program — called the National Applications Office — until it answers those questions, a department spokesman said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson — a strong opponent of the program — commended the department on Monday for what he called a moratorium, and for its decision to “go back to the drawing board and get it right.”

Thompson, D-Miss., is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Both he and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., submitted lists of questions about civil liberties protections and the legal basis for using advanced satellites to watch Americans.

The department would not say how long it plans to postpone the program.

“We are cooperatively working with the Congress to answer any questions that they have, DHS spokesman Andrew Lluberes said last week. “We are totally confident that this is going to go forward.”

Details of program
The National Applications Office would be taking over the role of the Civil Applications Committee which had processed domestic requests for satellite images since 1974.

Domestic agencies would make individual requests to the satellite agencies, depending on the issue. In the past, domestic agencies have been granted access to certain imagery to assist in response to natural disasters, such as hurricanes and fires.

The new Homeland Security program would streamline those requests by directing them all through the new office. The applications would be reviewed by a senior advisory committee, and if the committee determines a request is valid, the request would be sent to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which would ultimately determine whether the requested use is appropriate.

Making the Homeland Security Department the clearinghouse for requests would give law enforcement, emergency response and border control agencies greater access to the nation’s spy satellites and other sensors.

This new effort largely follows the recommendations outlined by a 2005 independent study group headed by Keith Hall, a former chief of the National Reconnaissance Office and now vice president of the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

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