PHOENIX — From high above the Earth, the U.S. intelligence community is using satellites to track the activities of drug cartels operating along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Pictures from space are being used along with other intelligence to pinpoint Mexican narcotics operations and anticipate smuggling attempts into the United States, said R. Scott Zikmanis, a deputy director of operations with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Federal officials say an eye in space adds one more tool in an ever-expanding technological arsenal aimed at defending the border from narcotics traffickers, human smugglers and terrorists.
If a satellite picks up on activities by drug runners, U.S. authorities could then transmit information to agents along the border.
In turn American authorities could notify their Mexican counterparts to a stash-house location or use the intelligence to calculate when and where loads of drugs may be coming across the border, Zikmanis said. "Is it possible? Of course it is," Zikmanis said. "Is it practical? Yes."
During 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 uses satellite 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 has been limited because of concerns about a military agency assisting domestic law enforcement, Zikmanis said.
Federal law strictly limits U.S. military operations on American soil unless such operations are authorized by Congress.
Any border-security surveillance will be done over Mexico, not the United States, Zikmanis said.
His agency uses both military and commercial satellites for its work.
Because the military photographs may be classified, he said, the agency is wrestling with legal questions about what can be shared with law enforcement.
Civil rights attorneys question the use of satellite technology in law enforcement.
"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.
"The idea that such a powerful tool might be turned on U.S. citizens is really troubling."