The United States intelligence community has taken the fight against Mexican drug cartels to outer space. R. Scott Zikmanis, deputy director of operations for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), revealed that satellites are being used to photograph “Mexican narcotics operations and [to] anticipate smuggling attempts into the United States.”  His agency typically works with the Pentagon to provide military surveillance on foreign soil as well as to aid with the response to natural disasters–such as forest fires–on U.S. soil.  In the agency’s new role as Mexican drug watchman, it might, for example, photograph a staging operation and transmit the pictures to U.S. agents who could then notify Mexican authorities or prepare to prevent the transport of drugs across the border.

Until now, satellite imaging has played a limited role in border patrol due to concerns about the participation of a military agency in domestic law enforcement.  There are some serious legal issues at play.  For one, the Posse Comitatus Act forbids the use of U.S. military forces for domestic law enforcement or police purposes within the United States unless authorized by Congress.  To avoid infringing on this act, the NGA only takes satellite photographs over Mexico.  Additionally, oftentimes the military photographs may be classified, so there are legal questions regarding how much can be shared with law enforcement.  Not surprisingly, the ACLU also has concerns: “We are in the midst of a really dangerous time in terms of technology,” said Chris Calabrese, an attorney with the Technology and Legal Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.  He worries that the government may one day turn the satellites onto U.S. citizens.

I think this is a great idea.  Mexican drug cartels are a huge problem, with associated violence often spilling over into the United States.  The legal concerns are not severe enough to outweigh the potential benefit of curbing the impact of the Mexican drug wars on U.S. citizens.  Regarding the Posse Comitatus Act, the NGA seems to have deftly avoided any infringement by only taking satellite photographs over non-U.S. soil.  While some may argue that this is just a clever way of sidestepping the safeguards needed to protect U.S. citizens from military forces acting as police, it is in fact a legitimate way to reap the benefits of  improved security against Mexican drug cartels while maintaining protections for U.S. citizens.  As long as satellites can only be used over other countries (and presumably only take photographs of people in other countries), the NGA will not be able to spy on U.S. citizens.  Moreover, as long as the only organizations who take action in response to intelligence gathered by the satellite photos are legitimate law enforcement agencies rather than military organizations (i.e., as long as the surveillance and the enforcement functions between the military and police are kept separate), this should help ensure that the military does not actively tread on anybody’s rights.  In other words, the NGA only takes the photographs, then hands them over to law enforcement officials.  Sure, there is a danger the military might get picture-happy on foreign soil, but as long as it is not sending out troops to act as policemen in the United States, I don’t see what the big problem is.

George Gaskin

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