WASHINGTON — Ten years ago, a Canadian icebreaker was parked in an ice pack 300 miles north of Pt. Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, and allowed to drift so scientists could study the Arctic environment and global warming's effect on it. The icebreaker drifted with the ice for a year and more than 1,800 miles as researchers tracked changes in the Arctic ice pack.
Top-secret U.S. spy satellites were among those tracking the icebreaker. With the approval of a little-noticed government body known as the Civil Applications Committee, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency released nearly 60 photos to scientists.
The committee, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Geological Survey, reviews civilian requests for classified reconnaissance information and makes recommendations to the intelligence community, which has the final say about what gets declassified. Such intelligence data can be helpful to scientists studying everything from volcanoes, forest fires, earthquakes and landslides to climate change, hurricanes, flooding and pollution.
Now, however, the Bush administration plans to abolish the committee and create a office in the Department of Homeland Security to review such requests and others from law enforcement agencies. Scientists are concerned that their requests could be sidetracked or delayed as security and law enforcement needs get priority.
The shift would be a "grave mistake," and the administration should rethink its plan, said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the USGS and a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Dicks said he's heard from federal scientists who don't like the plan. "They are worried," he said. "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."
The proposed change also has raised concerns on Capitol Hill that military spy satellites and other intelligence assets could be used to give federal and local law enforcement officials data that they could use to target illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, among other things.
"We believe the elimination of the civilian orientation of the Civil Applications Committee represents explicit harm in the near term to USGS and other civilian federal agencies, and it represents a potentially serious harm over the longer term to the constitutional protections U.S. citizens expect and deserve," Dicks said in a letter to administration officials.
Much of the intelligence information that's been released remains sensitive, and federal agencies and scientists refuse to provide details about it.
U.S. Forest Service officials, for example, declined to discuss information they received during the forest fire season, though it's widely known that the U.S. uses infrared sensors to detect missile launches, vehicle traffic and other heat sources.
Scientists at the Polar Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle have used classified measurements from U.S. nuclear submarines that lurked under the polar ice cap during the Cold War to determine whether the ice has thinned because of global warming. It has, at a rate of 4 inches a year.
The submarines were equipped with upward looking radar, said Drew Rothrock, one of the researchers who've used the Navy data, because their crews needed to know when the ice was too thick for them to surface.
Rothrock said the data from the Navy's Arctic Sub Lab in San Diego were always "fuzzed up" a bit to conceal the submarines' locations, but still proved valuable.
The Geological Survey and other federal agencies have had access to information about volcanic eruptions in the Aleutian Islands because volcanic ash can damage the engines of planes crossing the North Pacific.
"Sometimes this information is critical, and we need to know right now," said James Devine, a senior adviser to the Geological Survey's director. "The Aleutians are a major flyway for airplanes."
Devine said that the USGS requests classified information if data are needed immediately, if it's studying a remote location or if private satellites can't provide the required detail. He said that as far as he knew, the intelligence community has never refused a request that the Civil Applications Committee had approved.
"We use these assets as a last resort," he said.
Government spy satellites offer greater resolution than private ones do, and sensors and radars aboard satellites and spy planes also take infrared readings, measure electromagnetic activity and peer through clouds.
Even so, Rothrock said the process for declassifying information remains "murky. Everyone is timid about declassifying this stuff. People are a little skittish," he said.
The Civil Applications Committee, formed 30 years ago, includes representatives of 10 federal agencies, including the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and Transportation, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, NASA and the National Science Foundation. The CIA, the State Department and the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages the nation's spy satellites and planes, also participate but can't vote on scientific requests.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the administration began to explore the possibility of sharing more classified information with law enforcement officials and others involved in homeland security. The result was the plan to do away with the Civil Applications Committee in favor of a new National Applications Office in the Department of Homeland Security.
The new office was expected to be up and running last fall, but it was put on hold as administration officials scrambled to address the scientific and civil liberties questions.
The charter for the National Applications Office is being reworked, said Russ Knocke, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman.
"We think it will be something Congress is satisfied with," said Knocke. "I predict the stakeholders will be relieved and satisfied that their concerns were unfounded. We will get it out as soon as possible."