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Another day, another sound science policy getting Bushwhacked: The Bush administration is quietly pushing for the elimination of a committee that provides crucial intelligence data for scientists studying everything from climate change to hurricanes and pollution. The Civil Applications Committee, which is under the jurisdiction of the USGS, reviews civilian requests for classified information and makes recommendations to intelligence officials - who exercise the final say in deciding what gets declassified.
In its place, the Bush administration would establish a new office in DHS to review these requests and others from various law enforcement agencies. "They are worried. The scientists say this information is very valuable to them, and they are concerned this new office will be looking more at homeland security and law enforcement," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the USGS and a member of the Homeland Security Committee.Over the years, this sensitive agency has provided information to U.S. Forest Service officials during the forest fire season; to scientists using classified measurements from nuclear submarines to study how the polar ice cap has thinned; and to USGS officials seeking information about volcanic eruptions in the Aleutian Islands. This information has often proven "critical," as James Devine, a senior adviser to USGS's director, explained. "Sometimes this information is critical, and we need to know right now," he said.
As far as he knows, he has never been denied a request from the intelligence community that the Civil Applications Committee had already approved. The government's spy satellites often provide much better resolution than private ones, in addition to precise IR and electromagnetic activity readings.
The government's plan to replace the Civil Applications Committee with the National Applications Office in DHS was hatched shortly after the attacks of 9/11. The Bush administration had hoped the new office would already be up and running by now; plans have since been put on hold to tackle new questions about scientific and civil liberties.