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Published: Friday, 10/14/2005

Greater role for military? Call out the Posse (Comitatus)

THE brains behind the Bush Administration must be otherwise occupied these days. How else to explain the President's recent public displays of grasping at straws? Telling an increasingly skeptical nation to trust his instincts on elevating his devoted personal lawyer to the highest court in the land was akin to saying "trust me, I know what I'm doing in Iraq" or "trust me, everything's under control after Katrina and Rita."

Honestly, where is Karl Rove or Karen Hughes when we need them? The mastermind of the President's stunning rise from failed businessman with a pedigree to head of the free world is busy trying to save his own neck. He's up to his eyeballs in a developing scandal that involves exposing a CIA operative to teach her anti-administration spouse a lesson. In between multiple grand jury appearances, Karl could hardly be expected to proofread every Oval Office script.

Then there's the formidable Ms. Hughes, the President's chief Texas confidante and born-again cheerleader. In between traveling far and wide to patronize Arab audiences she is supposed to be charming, the woman can hardly be expected to run interference for a bungling boss back home.

But someone with even half a brain in the Bush circle of cherished cronies needs to nix a slippery suggestion by the commander in chief that the military should take a greater role in responding to homeland disasters. The very idea that the Pentagon would expand its job description from fighting wars to resolving any homeland crises from natural disasters to man-made ones should make the skin crawl on every freedom-loving American.

But there was Mr. Bush, in his common man attire of rolled-up shirt sleeves, ruminating about letting the military loose on its own people. He dropped the little jack-boot nugget in a post-Katrina speech meant to deflect attention from the incompetence of the federal government in responding to the natural disaster days after the fact.

If the military can get the job done on American soil lickety-split, why shouldn't it be allowed to do so? Congress ought to think about amending a law that restricts the homeland role of federal troops, he opined, as visions of army tanks rolling through American cities danced in our heads.

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 was passed as a sane response to the huge buildup of federal troops in the South during Reconstruction. The 127-year-old law that restricts the military to its core competency of waging war and defending the nation - not acting as police at home - is as relevant now as it was 127 years ago.

Soldiers who are trained to kill should not cross into civilian activities like law enforcement even in a domestic disaster the size of Katrina. Congress must resist any political pressure to consider inflating the authority of active duty forces even after such catastrophic events. Federalizing a disaster response on American soil is a dangerous proposition fraught with fearful scenarios, not the least of which is abuse of power.

Where does one draw the line on using military force in a national crisis? And how easily can jurisdictional boundaries be blurred? What constitutes a national disaster worthy of troop intervention on Main Street? Could unwieldy war protesters converging on Washington be controlled by armed infantrymen and tanks? Would a hostile strike by thousands of factory workers be enough to call out the military?

Under Posse Comitatus, active duty military can act in a variety of support functions to offer disaster relief, from providing logistics to distributing humanitarian aid. But first-responders to homeland security must be civilian-led: police officers, firefighters, medical and rescue crews, and, if necessary, the citizen soldiers of the National Guard.

Not to worry, assures the President even as the military crafts a plan to organize specially trained and equipped active-duty armed forces to respond immediately to national disasters in ostensibly supporting roles with the Nation Guard.

Everything is under control, say Dubya's preoccupied handlers, even as their charge nudges the nation into a scary place with greater military authority at home.



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