According to its web site the recently-created National Applications Office (NAO) has its roots in the Civil Applications Committee, an agency created in 1974 that "facilitated requests by civil agencies to make use of space-based imaging and remote sensing capabilities for purposes such as monitoring volcanic activity, environmental and geological changes, hurricanes, and floods." Presumably that is how it was used; if it had been directed against citizens or for political advantage we would have found out before too long. Either the results of the abuse would have led back to it or someone would have spilled the beans somehow. Humans' marvelous imperfection makes it all but impossible to sustain a long-term and far-reaching secret (which is also why I nearly automatically reject conspiracy theories). Of course, our native impulse to get as much as we can made it almost inevitable that someone would eventually try.
Enter the Department of Homeland Security. It describes the NAO (via the NAO site) as "the executive agent to facilitate the use of intelligence community technological assets for civil, homeland security and law enforcement purposes within the United States" and wants to use those satellites to do so. By now the executive branch doesn't get the benefit of the doubt on any information gathering process. In fact it has earned the opposite - the presumption of bad faith. In fairness we should take that approach towards any exercise of government power because that kind of skepticism is what gets safeguards, documentation and transparency built in. On the other hand, it's one thing to put them in place as a hedge against the worst case scenario and another to see the worst case scenario routinely play out before your eyes.
When the NAO was created last summer it was applauded on the right with a remarkable display of anti-reasoning: "Government officials refuse to talk about specific capabilities, but the performance of the satellites that the NAO will help coordinate are closer to those that power Google Earth than to anything imagined by the script writers of 24. Moreover, the administration has promised to employ safeguards that will protect basic civil liberties." While this looks positively enlightened compared to the authoritarians' recent attempts to rationalize torture it is still not very credible. The editors say, we don't know what the new powers are, but they aren't too extensive. What about the first half of the sentence qualifies them to make the claim in the second? Their defense kicks off with a sentence that contradicts itself, and if you cannot extend your logic past the first clause you might want to work on it a little more. And on what evidence can anyone seriously claim a promise to "employ safeguards that will protect basic civil liberties" will be kept? Everything we know from the last seven years suggests the opposite.
The NAO web site is not very helpful either. As of this writing its most recent update is August 15th of last year and it is filled with Newspeak phrases such as saying it provides "robust access to needed remote sensing information to appropriate customers". At the bottom is a section titled "Protecting Civil Liberties and Privacy" that provides absolutely zero detail on either. Given that the new powers the President wants to claim will likely be abused there is every reason to ask some questions, including: What will the collection consist of? Will it be yet another indiscriminate data sweep? If not, under what circumstances will it be turned on? Will a warrant be required? Will there be any kind of regular review or oversight to see if it is being abused? Leaving aside the expansion and abuse of power, why are our existing intelligence capabilities unable to safeguard us? (Keep in mind we had all the intelligence we needed to prevent 9/11, we just didn't process it correctly.) What is an example of the kind of intelligence you would expect this to uncover?
Fortunately these questions can still be asked since NAO is not yet up and running. On the other hand it has begun advertising to fill its newly created positions so we don't have all the time in the world. While it is encouraging that Reps. Bennie Thompson, Jane Harman and Christopher Carney have begun asking questions we should not expect the administration to be responsive. We saw when the Protect America Act expired that public pressure, Congressional pushback and a bit of good fortune can foil attempts to frighten us into giving away our rights (the PAA battle is still not over, of course [LATE UPDATE: It looks promising though (via)]). I sincerely hope we are ready to bring the first of those to bear once again as the President attempts to force through this latest infringement.