President Bush yesterday said he wants Congress to consider putting the Pentagon, not state and local agencies, in charge of responding to large natural disasters in the future.
"Is there a circumstance in which the Department of Defense becomes the lead agency?" Mr. Bush asked members of a military task force participating in Hurricane Rita relief efforts in Texas.
"Clearly, in the case of a terrorist attack, that would be the case, but is there a natural disaster of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?" he added. "That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."
The remarks came 10 days after the president first floated the idea during an address to the nation from New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Having been sharply criticized for the federal government's slow response to the storm, Mr. Bush called for increased powers for the White House and Pentagon.
"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," he said.
That would require a change of law, since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 forbids the military from performing civilian law enforcement duties. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is investigating possible reforms to the act, which Pentagon officials consider archaic.
Sen. John W. Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the president and defense secretary should be given "standby authorities" to respond to natural disasters.
"I believe the time has come that we reflect on the Posse Comitatus Act," the Virginia Republican said on the Senate floor earlier this month.
Mr. Bush's push for greater consolidation of federal power in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita mirrors his successful implementation of the Patriot Act in the wake of September 11. The act, which gives law enforcement officials greater authority to pursue terrorists, has been called overly intrusive by critics.
Similarly, critics are already warning against repeal of Posse Comitatus.
"Washington seems poised to embrace further centralization and militarization at home," cautioned Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "That has the makings of a policy disaster that would dwarf Hurricane Katrina."
Putting soldiers into peacekeeping roles will degrade their war-fighting skills and imperil the liberties of civilians, he said.
"When it comes to domestic policing, the military should be a last resort, not a first responder," Mr. Healy said. "That reflects America's traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that's well-justified."
Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, said the Pentagon should replace the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the primary coordinator of disaster relief.
"I'm not talking about superseding state authority or local authority," he told CNN. "But I am saying when a disaster is as big as at least Katrina, and you have this full-scale mobilization, food and water and ice and rescue efforts, I believe the proper entity at the federal level are the uniform services to be in the lead of that, not FEMA. And so I think we need to go to that model in the future."
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, said: "The military has a very strong role to play, but so do our governors and our local elected officials."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan emphasized that federal authority would be invoked only in "really extraordinary circumstances," such as a Katrina-size hurricane, a terrorist attack "or a disease pandemic, like an avian-flu outbreak."
Yesterday, several military officials urged the president to develop a national plan to coordinate search-and-rescue efforts.