U.S. delays domestic satellite spying program

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government has delayed the start of a program that would use spy-satellite images for domestic purposes including counterterrorism efforts, a congressman critical of the effort said on Monday.

The federal Homeland Security Department told U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson that the program would not be launched until it had addressed civil-liberties issues he raised in August. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, heads the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.

The department had planned to launch what was called the National Applications Office on Monday, the start of the new fiscal year, Thompson said. “The moratorium on NAO implementation is only a first step,” he said in a statement.

He said lawmakers would work with the department to ensure that the office follows “rigorous privacy and civil liberties safeguards that are necessary to keep faith with both the Constitution and the American people.”

Charles Allen, the Homeland Security Department’s assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis, said in a letter to Thompson the department was working to answer his questions and the program would protect U.S. privacy and civil liberties.

The United States has used spy satellite images for purposes such as monitoring U.S. natural disasters. But the new office would also use the images for domestic security and law enforcement, and it would share the information with state and local authorities, the Homeland Security Department has said.

Congress has authorized funding for the new office. But Thompson and other leading members of the Homeland Security Committee called for a moratorium, saying the program lacked legal safeguards to protect privacy and civil liberties.

The department said the program is legal and subject to long-standing procedures aimed at protecting Americans’ rights.