Call to Expand Military Powers at Home Seen as Unnecessary, Political

President Bush recently suggested that the military be given broader powers to deal with domestic crises like Hurricane Katrina or a potential bird flu epidemic, but emergency response and security groups in the U.S. say the military already has the power it needs to provide both relief and protection to citizens, and question whether the president’s real motives aren’t political.

In mid-September, after Katrina and the subsequent civil disorder struck New Orleans, President Bush told the nation that the military should play a bigger role in such major domestic crises.

“It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces – the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment’s notice,” the president said in an address to the nation from Jackson Square in New Orleans.

But relief groups doubt whether giving the military police power in emergency situations would really increase Americans’ safety.

“With images of soldiers in New Orleans carrying M-16s but no medical or relief supplies fresh in the public memory, the president would still have us believe that a military response is the preferred response,” said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary for the American Friends Service Committee, in a statement on the Committee’s Web site.

The Committee, which has worked in disaster areas and war zones for almost 90 years, says the military is no substitute for trained relief and reconstruction personnel and accused the president of chasing after more money for the Pentagon.

“Relief work cannot be a military add on. Public safety is too important to be used in a ploy to prop up ballooning military expenditures and a failed foreign policy of global dominance,” McNish said.

“The answer is not to embed disaster response even more deeply in the ‘war on terror’ bureaucracy,” she said.

Earlier this week, Bush asked Congress to review the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the armed forces from engaging in police-type work within U.S. borders.

“I’m concerned about what an avian flu outbreak could mean for the United States and the world,” he said at a news conference in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.

“One option is the use of a military that’s able to plan and move,” he said. “So that’s why I put it on the table. I think it’s an important debate for Congress to have.”

The World Health Organization reports that the avian flu virus, which has killed millions of birds, has claimed about 60 human lives.

While the disease has been limited to Asia so far, the Bush administration’s top health official warned this week that an outbreak in the U.S. could cause anywhere from 100,000 to 2 million deaths, according to the New York Times, and President Bush said a military response could be needed in that case to enforce a quarantine of infected persons.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate added nearly $4 billion to a Pentagon spending bill to purchase vaccines for approximately half of the U.S. population.

The American Red Cross said it had not yet reviewed the implications of a change to Posse Comitatus and was not prepared to comment on it. However, Jana Zehner, a spokesperson, said that the Red Cross was not dissatisfied with the response to Hurricane Katrina made by the police, National Guard, or the military.

Some security groups and military experts, for their part, have questioned what benefit granting the military domestic police powers could bring in responding to crises such as an avian flu pandemic.

“I cannot imagine U.S. troops surrounding a town where avian flu has broken out with fixed bayonets to prevent people from getting out of the town – that’s just nuts,” says retired Army Lieutenant General Robert G. Gard.

But Gard says the main argument against changing posse comitatus is that the military can already serve as police in domestic emergencies, although only in the gravest circumstances.

Under the current system, the military is allowed to offer all kinds of logistical support during domestic crises, but cannot engage in policing, says Gard, who is now the senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington, D.C.

“The point that’s often made about deploying troops in a time of disaster is that they have a good logistic capability to quickly deploy food, shelter, and supplies, and you can already do that,” Gard says.

As a first recourse, when state and local police are overwhelmed, governors are able to deploy National Guard troops stationed in their state, or they can call in additional Guard personnel from neighboring states if their own troop levels are low (as they may be due to deployments overseas).

But in those rare cases when none of these security bodies are able to contain a problem, then the president – regardless of a governor’s objections – may deploy federal troops to stop a breakdown in law and order, as permitted under the Insurrection Act.

“If you have a situation like New Orleans with chaos and looting – with insufficient local law enforcement to do the job – federal forces can be employed under the Insurrection Act,” according to Gard.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush invoked the Act by sending troops to Los Angeles to contain riots following the acquittal of police officers accused of the beating of Rodney King. Likewise, the current President Bush used the Act to override posse comitatus when he put armed, active duty troops in airports following 9/11.

Thus a weakening or removal of posse comitatus would not mean an increase in security so much as a change in command away from the states and to the president, Gard says.

Many security experts believe the Insurrection Act should remain a final option.

“The military should be involved in domestic problems as little as possible – as a last resort, not a first resort,” says John Isaacs, President of Council for a Livable World, an arms control organization based in Washington, DC

“We have huge domestic security forces, the national guard and the reserves. They should be first priority.”

Problems also arise when the military act as police, Isaacs says, since their training does not prepare them for policing – in fact, it prepares them for the opposite: combat.

The military, in all likelihood, wants no part of the job, says retired Lieutenant General Gard.

“The last thing the active army wants to get involved in is policing its own citizens,” he said.

With governors, relief groups, security groups, and in all probability, the military itself against the idea of expanding its duties to include domestic police work, it seems that President Bush stands relatively alone in his recommendation for expanding military power.

Unable to find logic in Bush’s purported reasons for requesting that Congress review posse comitatus, some observers, like Gard, attribute more political motives to the president.

“He’s trying to recover from the fact that there was a failure, both local and nationally, in responding to Katrina,” Gard said.