America's military doesn't need new role

September 30, 2005|By JOSEPH WHEELAN

In the bitter aftermath of the New Orleans catastrophe, President Bush is considering using the already-overextended U.S. armed forces as the nation's primary emergency response agency.

It's a terrible idea. The Founding Fathers, who were deeply suspicious of all standing armies, would be mortified.

This is the second time the Bush administration has suggested broadening the military's authority inside U.S. borders. After 9/11, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said federal troops should be used to combat domestic terrorism.

Congress did not act then, and it should not act now.

Is Mr. Bush serious about this? His proposition might be only an attempt to deflect attention, and criticism, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's slow, muddled response in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina. After all, the president, unlike New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, has foresworn finger-pointing, although that hasn't stopped his supporters from rushing to the partisan barricades.

But if Mr. Bush is serious about giving the military yet another major mission, here are three reasons why Congress should not sign off on the idea:

First, there are a sufficient number of emergency management and response agencies - FEMA and official state, county and city emergency organizations - with authority to act in any disaster. They can commandeer private property, compel evacuations and, in civil unrest, call out the National Guard and request federal troops.

Unquestionably, these agencies must do their jobs better. They can begin by planning for the worst scenarios, emphasizing seamless cooperation among agencies and then rehearsing these plans again and again.

Second, the military is not trained to respond to civil disasters or to act as police. And America's armed forces have enough on their plates - Iraq, Afghanistan and battling world terrorism - without tying up precious training time, manpower and resources preparing for possible national disasters.

Third, it might very well violate the law. Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 after federal troops supervised voting in the Reconstruction South during the controversial 1876 presidential election.

Posse Comitatus prohibits federal troops and National Guardsmen under federal supervision from serving as law enforcement officers within the United States. The act was amended in 1956 to include the Air Force in its provisions. The act reads, in part:

"Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

No one has ever been charged with violating the law, which has enough exceptions to obviate any need to revise it. Among other exceptions, the president can waive the law in a national emergency and governors can call out the National Guard. And over the past 25 years, Congress has authorized the Coast Guard to be used in drug interdiction and federal troops to be deployed during a nuclear crisis.

Perhaps because the act does not specifically prohibit the Navy from civil law enforcement, Marines - the infantry arm of the Navy - were sent to the Texas-Mexican border in the 1990s to thwart drug smugglers. The patrols were stopped after a Marine corporal killed an 18-year-old Mexican-American goat herder in Texas in 1997.

The Founding Fathers bridled at the idea of a standing army, remembering the abuses of British troops stationed in American Colonial cities and towns, and the United States went without a standing army for years.

The Constitution's framers made sure to clearly establish civilian control of the military. Do we now wish to give the military more control over our civil affairs?

Designating the military as the nation's primary federal emergency responder is a half-baked idea. It would distract attention from the job of discovering why the response to Katrina was a disaster in its own right.

Let's figure out what went wrong in New Orleans and fix it so that it doesn't happen again.

Joseph Wheelan is the author of two books about Thomas Jefferson, including Jefferson's Vendetta : The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary. He lives in Cary, N.C.

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