Tuesday, September 27, 2005

President Bush yesterday sought to federalize hurricane-relief efforts, removing governors from the decision-making process.

“It wouldn’t be necessary to get a request from the governor or take other action,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday.

“This would be,” he added, “more of an automatic trigger.”

Mr. McClellan was referring to a new, direct line of authority that would allow the president to place the Pentagon in charge of responding to natural disasters, terrorist attacks and outbreaks of disease.

“It may require change of law,” Mr. Bush said yesterday. “It’s very important for us as we look at the lessons of Katrina to think about other scenarios that might require a well-planned, significant federal response — right off the bat — to provide stability.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused Mr. Bush of attempting a power grab in the wake of fierce criticism that he responded too slowly to Hurricane Katrina a month ago.

“Using the military in domestic law enforcement is generally a very bad idea,” said Timothy Edgar, national security policy counsel for the ACLU. “I’m afraid that it will have unforeseen consequences for civil liberties.”

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour declined the president’s offer to federalize the state’s National Guard troops in the aftermath of Katrina. So Mr. Bush wants Congress to consider empowering the Pentagon with automatic control.

Currently, the lead federal agency responsible for disaster relief is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has just 2,500 employees and is a division of the Homeland Security Department. Mr. Bush has suggested that a more appropriate agency is the Department of Defense (DoD), which has 1.4 million active-duty troops.

“I was speculating about was a scenario which would require federal assets to stabilize the situation — primarily DoD assets — and then hand back over to Department of Homeland Security,” the president said.

But stabilizing a crisis might require federal troops to arrest looters and perform other law-enforcement duties, which would violate the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. The law was passed in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction to prevent the use of federal troops from policing elections in former Confederate states.

The White House wants Congress to consider amending Posse Comitatus in order to grant the Pentagon greater powers.

“There are two committees that are moving forward on hearings to look at what went wrong and what went right with Hurricane Katrina and to apply lessons learned,” Mr. McClellan said. “And this is an issue that they should look at as they’re discussing these issues.

“We are also doing a comprehensive review within the federal government,” he added.

The ACLU cautioned against such a change of law.

“The Posse Comitatus Act is sometimes criticized as some sort of obscure, centuries-old law,” Mr. Edgar said. “But you know, most of our liberties are centuries old. So that would be like saying the Bill of Rights is obscure and old.

“Our strict separation between military and civilian power is one of the things that separates us from Latin America, for example,” he added. “Changing that would put us on a huge slippery slope.”

Meanwhile yesterday, outgoing FEMA Director Michael D. Brown reportedly said he should have sought help faster from the Pentagon after Katrina hit.

Mr. Brown spoke to congressional aides from both parties a day before he is scheduled to testify before a special House committee probing the government’s response to the storm.

According to a memo from a Republican staffer who was at the 90-minute briefing, Mr. Brown expressed regrets “that he did not start screaming for DoD involvement” sooner. The first substantial numbers of active-duty troops responding to the Gulf Coast were sent Sept. 3 — five days after the storm hit and after a flooded New Orleans had plunged into anarchy.

The memo, obtained by the Associated Press, said Mr. Brown took several shots at Mrs. Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. He said the two officials “sparred during the crisis and could not work together cooperatively.”

He also called the governor “indecisive” and said she would not cede control of the Louisiana National Guard to federal authorities because “it would have undercut her image politically,” the document said.

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