- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

The commander of Northern Command was reported Monday by The Washington Post as saying the military should be in charge if we are ever attacked by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction.

I suppose he forgot that in America, the military is never in charge. Civilians are.

Many well-meaning military planners have been looking at the potential for catastropic terrorist attacks inside the United States. Attacks so devastating, such as a nuclear bomb exploded in an American city, would clearly challenge traditional emergency response.

Should, for instance, half of downtown Memphis be destroyed by an al Qaeda WMD, I have no doubt the governor of Tennessee would immediately request federal support from the president to deal with the overwhelmingconsequences of such an event.

The key word here is “support.” In no circumstance is the military ever “in charge.” Let us imagine if on September 11, Islamic terrorists had used a nuclear bomb in New York City instead of airplanes. Does anyone think Mayor Rudy Giuliani would have relinquished his leadership to a federal military commander? Do pigs fly?

OK, so maybe what Adm. Keating meant to say is that, under such a circumstance, the military would be in charge of the federal response. If so, he is still all wet.

The president decided that issue when he signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5, which places the secretary of homeland security in charge of federal incident response. HSPD-5 is clear.

The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is in charge of the federal response for all incidents, not just the easy ones.

That Adm. Keating is thinking about the military’s role should terrorists get their hands on weapons of mass destruction is not the issue. Indeed, it is likely that, following such an attack, active-duty soldiers would be called on to help civilian authorities provide security and medical response. But Adm. Keating would not be in charge. He would be commanding military forces, which would be an important but supporting element in the overall response. He would never command any state or local entity, or any other federal team.

It is a central tenet of emergency management that all disasters are local.

Even if a radiological bomb had gone off in the Pentagon on September 11, the incident commander would still have been the Arlington County fire chief, not a general or an admiral.

The truth is, Adm. Keating, you are the last number called. This is America. Civilians are in charge — always. Northern Command is not even the first military responder. The National Guard, under the command of a governor, is the first military responder.

I have no quarrel with Northern Command planning for how it would fit into a response to the use of WMD inside the United States. We should be thinking about those dark scenarios, so we don’t have to make it all up when it happens.

But Northern Command should never delude itself into thinking the terrorists will ever succeed in changing the fundamental character of the American form of government.

Adm. Keating has done us a favor. He has initiated an important debate.

It is a debate we need to have. For starters, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld needs to let Adm. Keating know who is boss.

Mike Walker served as acting secretary of the Army and deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He oversaw military support to civil authorities in the Pentagon for five years during the 1990s.

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