Increasing military's role raises questions

Bush disaster-relief plan complicated by law against using active-duty troops for law enforcement, possible overextension of Guard

Katrina's Wake

September 20, 2005|By Tom Bowman and Siobhan Gorman | Tom Bowman and Siobhan Gorman,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's plan to give the military a larger role in disaster relief faces a number of potential obstacles, according to Pentagon officials and military analysts.

Among the hurdles are laws against using active-duty troops for law enforcement, questions about whether the National Guard is overextended because of its responsibilities overseas and decisions about whether to create specialized military units to handle emergencies including natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Similar calls for an expanded role for the armed services after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 largely went nowhere because of quiet opposition from the Defense Department.

Bush, in a nationally televised speech from New Orleans last week, called for "a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice," in responding to disasters.

Pentagon officials are trying to determine how to put Bush's vision into practice.

"I heard what he said, and it remains to be seen how it plays out," said Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. "I'm not sure what the next construct will look like."

A senior Pentagon official said the military's response to Katrina has been complicated by "archaic laws" that were "difficult to work through." The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act generally bars active-duty military from law-enforcement activities on U.S. soil.

The official said he expects the Pentagon to address those and other military issues related to domestic disaster relief in a "more formal way." No deadline has been set for finding answers.

Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a letter last week to look into the Posse Comitatus issue.

Some military analysts point out that the National Guard and active-duty soldiers often have been used in domestic disasters or disturbances, including riots in the 1960s and Hurricane Andrew in Florida.

The biggest lesson learned from Katrina has less to do with changing laws than with coordination and communications between state and local governments and the new Department of Homeland Security, they say.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said concerns over Posse Comitatus are misplaced because the president could have declared a national emergency. That would have freed troops to take part in law enforcement and other types of domestic duties.

Blum agreed. "Posse Comitatus was not an issue," he said, because tens of thousands of Guard troops streamed into the area, many of them assisting local law enforcement and operating under state law.

A more pressing concern, he said, was a lack of clarity about what was happening on the ground. That could have been solved with better backup communications, he said.

Cordesman said any government-wide analysis after Katrina must examine how the National Guard should be used. About half of the combat units in Iraq are drawn from the Guard, which might need to reduce its overseas responsibilities to devote more personnel to domestic needs.

"If not, what level of additional forces are needed?" he asked.

The Guard has about 312,000 soldiers.

National Guard troops, who are commanded by a state's governor unless called to federal duty by the president, can perform law-enforcement functions under a state's laws.

David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted that in 1992, the National Guard in Florida was available for Hurricane Andrew. By contrast, about 60 percent of the Mississippi Guard and 65 percent of the Louisiana Guard were on hand this month because of deployments to Iraq.

"In the past, the Guard did not play as large a role in international deployments," Segal said.

Blum said the Guard can handle international and domestic jobs.

"I think the response of the military was more than sufficient, effective and timely for Katrina," and more effective than the response of any other part of the federal government, he said.

After Hurricane Andrew, during the administration of Bush's father, proposals were made in Congress that would have broadened the military's role in responding to domestic disasters.

They included rolling the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the Defense Department; placing a key portion of FEMA, such as its communications apparatus, in the Defense Department; and increasing the role of the National Guard in emergency response.

In the end, the only change was the transfer of some emergency functions from FEMA to the National Security Agency to make sure that the government would continue to operate after a disaster, said Gary Wamsley, who was staff director of a 1993 study by the National Academy of Public Administration that was critical of FEMA's performance.

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