Military plans role in disasters

Active-duty troops would assume more responsibility in `catastrophic' events


WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is planning to take a larger role responding to "catastrophic" events within the United States such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and is developing plans to use active-duty troops to respond to an avian flu pandemic, the Defense Department's top homeland security official said yesterday.

The lessons from Hurricane Katrina require that the military assume a greater role during major disasters, said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security Paul McHale.

But McHale stressed that active-duty troops would be used only for "catastrophic" events and would not be pulled into responding to the more than 50 storms, floods and hurricanes that require federal disaster assistance each year.

"A catastrophic event is the kind of event where the destruction is so severe that we anticipate such an event will occur once or twice in a generation," McHale said. "A Category 4 hurricane ... [such as] Katrina is a pretty rare event."

Last month, President Bush said during a nationally televised address from New Orleans that he would seek a larger role for the active-duty military in responding to domestic disasters. Bush's call came after the federal response to the hurricane was assailed as slow and inept, leaving victims stranded for days without aid.

McHale's remarks, during a breakfast meeting with defense writers yesterday, provided the first glimpse into the extent of the military's new mission. McHale's comments also reflected a wariness within the military over the added duties. Many fear that active-duty troops --stretched thin by protracted deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan -- might be too readily deployed on labor-intensive domestic assignments that traditionally have been the domain of state and local authorities.

McHale insisted that active-duty troops would not become "first responders" to every domestic disaster, and likely would be needed only when local and state authorities themselves become victims of the disaster, as happened during Hurricane Katrina.

Government officials have yet to decide the scope of a disaster that would trigger a federal military response. Still, McHale said that an outbreak of avian flu could be so severe that active-duty forces might need to assist the National Guard in enforcing a quarantine of areas affected by the disease.

"It is conceivable that a ... biological event would be so large, so catastrophic, that every agency of the federal government, most especially to include [the Defense Department], would be involved in a comprehensive federal response," McHale said.

McHale said the Pentagon is drawing up contingency plans for dealing with an avian flu outbreak and would soon provide a more detailed picture of how the Pentagon's effort would fit into the federal government's response. Bush last week said he would consider using troops to "effect a quarantine" in the event of an avian flu outbreak, but gave few details.

With an annual budget of more than $400 billion and a fleets of ships, helicopters and trucks at its disposal, the Pentagon is considered by many to be the only agency equipped to respond immediately to major national disasters.

The Pentagon's Northern Command in Colorado, the military headquarters responsible for military operations inside North America, is considering a plan to have a rapid reaction force permanently set aside to respond immediately to domestic disasters.

Yet some Pentagon officials and outside experts caution against overreacting to Katrina by adopting draconian new measures or enacting drastic changes in existing law.

Active-duty troops are prohibited from performing law enforcement functions by the Posse Comitatus Act. But the president could invoke another law, the Insurrection Act, to temporarily override the prohibition. As Congress mulls potential changes, some experts fear that making it easier for the president to send troops to maintain order could undercut protections against the use of the military within U.S. borders.

Mark Mazzetti writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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