Satellites Zoom in on Crime at Border
A relatively obscure U.S. intelligence agency has begun using satellite photographs to help authorities bust drug runners along the nation's Southwest border.
R. Scott Zikmanis, a deputy director of operations with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said pictures from space can be used along with other intelligence to pinpoint Mexican narcotics operations and anticipate smuggling forays into the United States.
An eye in space adds one more tool to an ever-expanding technological arsenal aimed at defending the border from narcotics traffickers, human smugglers and terrorists.
If, for example, phone surveillance by the National Security Agency were to intercept cartel conversations in Mexico about a planned marijuana shipment, Zikmanis said, a satellite could be directed to photograph the staging operation, and pictures could be transmitted to U.S. agents along the border.
The American authorities could then alert Mexican counterparts to the stash-house location or use the intelligence to calculate when and where loads may come across the border, he said.
At a Phoenix conference on border security last week, Zikmanis said his agency already has supplied some data to the El Paso Intelligence Center, a federal clearinghouse for the investigation of drug cartels.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency focuses on surveillance on foreign soil for the Pentagon, though it also has assisted emergency responders in domestic disasters such as wildfires and Hurricane Katrina.
The use of satellite imagery for border security, however, has been limited because of concerns about a military agency assisting domestic law enforcement, Zikmanis said.
A federal law, the Posse Comitatus Act, strictly limits U.S. military operations on American soil unless such operations are authorized by Congress
The NGA and NSA are agencies belonging to the Department of Defense.
Border-security surveillance will be done over Mexico, not the United States, Zikmanis said.
His agency uses both military and commercial satellites.
Because the military photographs may be classified, he said, the agency is wrestling with legal questions about what can be shared with law enforcement.
Chris Calabrese, an attorney with the Technology and Legal Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said emerging surveillance techniques have put a squeeze on civil liberties.
"We are in the midst of a really dangerous time in terms of technology," Calabrese said. "The idea that such a powerful tool might be turned on U.S. citizens is really troubling."
An NGA newsletter said cameras already are being used to provide the Department of Homeland Security with intelligence on human-smuggling corridors in the United States.
The new border operation will deliver more focused and immediate information, Zikmanis said. Although satellite images are not available for real-time surveillance, he said, analysts will be able to combine pictures with other data to target smuggling operations.
Zikmanis said he has worked for a federal drug-interdiction agency in Florida and is eager to help with border security.
"I've got pictures of me (from Florida) sitting on a half-million dollars of cocaine," he said. "I love those pictures. I want more of them."