Tuesday, December 2, 2008

When the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian Cato Institute are singing the same song, it’s time to pay attention to the tune. The two organizations are rightfully concerned by the expansion of executive authority that is inherent in plans to have 20,000 troops inside the United States whose role is to respond to any domestic catastrophe. This homeland security role cries out for oversight and strict guidelines.

Since 1878, in the wake of the Civil War, the military has been constrained by the Posse Comitatus Act from having a domestic law enforcement role under most circumstances. With the proliferation of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, it does seem prudent to train military rapid-reaction forces to back up civilian responders who likely would be overwhelmed in a domestic chemical, biological or nuclear incident. On a much smaller scale, the military has had preparations for a domestic WMD attacks since at least 1996, as The Washington Post has reported. The paper also says the Pentagon - prodded by the Bush administration, Congress, various experts and circumstances - plans, funding permitting, three active-duty combat brigades of 4,700 troops apiece and 80 smaller National Guard and Reserve units totaling 6,000 personnel. This is a change in military culture and responsibilities not warmly embraced by the military, which is already stretched thin.

Late last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gave officials 25 days to assess whether active military, Guard and Reserve forces can respond adequately to domestic disasters. A congressionally sponsored commission back in January concluded they weren’t ready and lacked equipment and training, and it is doubtful the situation has changed.

But a bigger question is whether domestic emergency deployment is, in the words of an ACLU official, “just the first example of a series of expansions in presidential and military authority” and an increase in domestic surveillance or, in the words of a Cato official, a possible “creeping militarization” of homeland security. These are not warnings to be taken lightly - too often the camel’s nose under the tent leads to the tent never looking or being the same again.

Obviously, a dirty bomb, for instance, needs immediate response. But we would urge Congress to seek an appropriate immediate-authorization mechanism for use of active duty or federalized forces in certain categories of domestic emergency. Perhaps the unanimous approval of the president, president pro tem of the Senate, house speaker and chief justice, with time limits on military activities before congressional review, should be considered.

The U.S. military has a long, strong history and culture of civilian control, and probably no one anywhere thinks this will ever change. Nor is any president likely to go rogue. That really isn’t the point. In card games, everyone trusts each other but the cards are still cut before the dealer deals them.

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