Local News

Springer Journal: Is There Another Mission on the Horizon?

Posted October 3, 2005

— America's military forces are organized, trained and equipped to defend our homeland, and also to deter or defeat conflicts around the globe. They do the latter through bi-lateral and multi-lateral treaties such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). On any given day we have soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen or Coast Guard members in any one of 175 nations around the globe. Their tasks, in peace and war, are incredibly important to our nation's way of life.

Now there is much talk about codifying another mission for our armed forces. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the less than stellar response from all levels of government (local, state and federal) President Bush, along with some leading members of Congress, are looking into the role of military forces in "natural disasters."

Currently the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA) of 1878 prohibits the use of federal troops for law enforcement unless authorized by the constitution or an Act of Congress. This law does not apply to the United States Coast Guard in peacetime or to the National Guard while on State Active Duty.

Simply stated, the Posse Comitatus Act prohibits our federal military personnel from law enforcement activities such as interdicting vehicles, boats or airplanes. Further, they are prohibited by this law from making arrests on behalf of civilian law enforcement agencies. Again I would note, this does not restrict the National Guard on State Active Duty or members of the Coast Guard from performing such acts.

Over the years since the PCA was enacted, Congress has passed laws granting exceptions to the 1878 law. For example, Congress has authorized the military to assist civilian law enforcers in counter-drug operations, as well as assistance in crimes that involve nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Congress has also authorized the president to use federal troops to repel a rebellion (The Insurrection Act).

And now following Katrina and Rita, the discussion centers on whether there is another mission on the horizon for the U.S. military forces. Clearly, our armed forces are the only ones who have the necessary manpower, equipment, and leadership to adequately handle such massive natural disasters as we have witnessed in the past 30 days. Hurricane Katrina was arguably the greatest natural disaster to strike America. Would any local or state government have been able to handle the evacuations, the rescues, the recoveries and the security of their people and property with their own first responders? I doubt it.

The military has the manpower and the equipment, such as medical evacuation aircraft, helicopters, ships, trucks, etc. They also have the organization with superb leadership. Military members respect the chain of command. There would not be several folks nominally in charge; there would be one person in charge should the federal forces have the lead. These same military members would not be an added financial burden. They will be paid whether deployed abroad, in garrison at home base, or serving in the time of a natural disaster. It almost sounds like a no brainer to amend or toss out the Posse Comitatus Act. But it is not that simple. There is much to consider and I trust the issue will receive a thorough and non-partisan airing in the halls of Congress before any new legislation is forwarded to the president for signature.

In our federal form of government, we leave much to the state and local officials who are elected by their state and local constituents. We should move cautiously before we remove the responsibility for natural disasters from state and local officials and pass it to the federal government. Each state has its own National Guard with considerable training, equipment and leadership to respond to the governor's direction. And when performing in the state (non-federalized) role the Guard has the necessary authority to assist law enforcement officials.

In this period of a world war on terrorism the military has a pretty full plate of responsibilities. Yet, they still have the wherewithal to assist, and direct if necessary, the response to any imaginable natural disaster.

I am not yet ready to suggest that federal forces be used to enforce law and order where criminal actions are taking place, although that could be accommodated with a request from local or state government officials. I would suggest though that by asking for Army or Marine forces early on they could assist the local police and firefighters to accomplish orderly evacuations, provide food, water and shelter, etc. This would free up local authorities and state National Guard forces to control crime, secure prisoners and handle matters where weapons may be necessary.

As I ponder any changes to the Posse Comitatus Act, I believe that some accommodations need to be made to the existing scheme of things. There should be some trigger point at which the president can declare a situation as an "extreme national disaster" which would permit him or her to override reluctant state and local officials. Note I use the term "national." It is pretty clear to me that Katrina and Rita are "national" in scope. Our economy across the board has been affected by these devastating storms. Katrina was not a Louisiana, or Alabama, or Mississippi disaster. Katrina has been a "national" disaster. It should be treated accordingly.

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