The U.S. government has greatly expanded the range of domestic security officials who can get access to information from the nation's vast network of spy satellites, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
In other words, the satellites that are traditionally used for overseas spying can be used more often on domestic targets, according to the report.
The move was authorized in a May 25 memo sent to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff asking his department to facilitate access to the spy network on behalf of civilian agencies and law enforcement.
Access to the high-tech surveillance tools would, according to the memo, allow domestic security and law-enforcement officials to see real-time, high-resolution images and data, which would allow them, for example, to identify smuggler staging areas, a gang safehouse, or possibly even a building being used by would-be terrorists to manufacture chemical weapons.
However, the development is likely to heat up debate about the balance between civil liberties and national security, since the domestic use of spy satellites is largely uncharted territory.
Although U.S. courts have permitted warrantless aerial searches of private property by law-enforcement aircraft, there are no cases involving the use of satellite technology.
Some experts have questioned whether domestic use of such satellites would violate the Posse Comitatus Act.
The act bars the military from engaging in law-enforcement activity inside the U.S., and the satellites were predominantly built for and owned by the Defense Department.