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Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Debate flares on role of troops in disasters

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — President Bush's plan to give the military a larger role in disaster relief faces several potential obstacles, according to Pentagon officials and military analysts.

Among the hurdles: laws against using active-duty troops for law enforcement, questions about whether the National Guard is overextended by its responsibilities overseas, and decisions about whether to create specialized military units to handle emergencies ranging from natural disasters to a terrorist attack.

Similar calls for an expanded military role after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 largely went nowhere because of quiet opposition from the Defense Department.

Bush, in a nationally televised speech from New Orleans last week, called for "a broader role for the armed forces — the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice" — in responding to future disasters.

Pentagon officials are trying to determine how to put Bush's vision into practice.

"I heard what he said, and it remains to be seen how it plays out," said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. "I'm not sure what the next construct will look like."

A senior Pentagon official said the military's response to Katrina had been complicated by "archaic laws" that were "difficult to work through." The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act generally prohibits active-duty military from participating in law-enforcement activities on U.S. soil.

The official said he expected the Pentagon to address these and other issues related to domestic disaster relief in a "more formal way," although there is as yet no deadline for answers.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a letter last week to look into the Posse Comitatus issue.

But some military analysts note that the National Guard and active-duty soldiers often have been used in home-grown disasters or disturbances, from 1960s riots to Hurricane Andrew in Florida.

The biggest lesson learned from Katrina has more to do with coordination and communications between state and local governments and the new Department of Homeland Security than any change in law, they say.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said concerns over Posse Comitatus are misplaced, since the president could have declared a national emergency. That would have freed troops to take part in law enforcement and other types of domestic duty.

Blum agreed. "Posse Comitatus was not an issue," he said, since tens of thousands of Guard troops streamed into the area, many of them helping local law enforcement and operating under state law.

A more pressing concern, he said, was a lack of clarity about what was happening on the ground. That could have been solved with better backup communications, he said.

Cordesman said any governmentwide analysis after Katrina must examine how the National Guard should be used. About half of the combat units in Iraq are drawn from the Guard, which might need to reduce its overseas responsibilities to devote more personnel to domestic needs.

"If not, what level of additional forces are needed?" he asked.

The Guard has a force of about 312,000 soldiers.

National Guard troops, commanded by a state's governor unless called to federal duty by the president, can perform law-enforcement functions under their state's laws.

David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted that the National Guard in Florida was available for Hurricane Andrew. By contrast, only about 60 percent of the Mississippi Guard and 65 percent of the Louisiana Guard were on hand for Katrina because of deployments to Iraq.

"In the past," Segal said, "the Guard did not play as large a role in international deployments."

Blum said the Guard can handle both international and domestic jobs.

"I think the response of the military was more than sufficient, effective and timely for Katrina," and more effective than any other part of the federal government, he added.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, during the administration of Bush's father, a variety of proposals were made in Congress that would have broadened the military role in fighting disasters at home.

They included rolling the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the Defense Department; placing a key portion of FEMA, such as its communications apparatus, into the Defense Department; or increasing the role of the National Guard in emergency response.

In the end, the only change was the transfer of some emergency functions from FEMA to the National Security Agency, to make sure the government would still operate after a disaster, said Gary Wamsley, staff director of a 1993 study critical of FEMA's performance by the National Academy of Public Administration.

Wamsley said other changes failed due to quiet opposition by the top ranks at the Pentagon, as well as more vocal protests from state emergency-management officials who feared losing control in a crisis.

The Pentagon brass believed that more domestic duties would hinder their "total force" planning and limit their ability to use the National Guard overseas, he said.

But since 9/11, Americans have changed their views toward the military and its role in keeping the public safe in all kinds of situations, said Richard Sylves, a University of Delaware professor who specializes in emergency management.

Aside from a debate over Posse Comitatus, Sylves said putting active military into disaster response raises other questions: Should the active military have shoot-to-kill orders domestically to keep order in a disaster? If both the active military and National Guard are responding, who is in charge? What authority do governors have?

James Carafano, a defense and homeland-security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, sees no need to change existing law to increase the military role in a domestic catastrophe.

Carafano proposes refocusing much of the National Guard, and perhaps other military units, on disaster response and redevelopment. That role would be just as useful in Baghdad as in New Orleans.

"It's the same problem," he said of rebuilding in the wake of a disaster.

"It's a much better mission for the Guard."

But Blum resists such an idea, saying his troops should be prepared for everything from high-end combat to disaster relief.

"I don't think our military is large enough to devote a sizable portion for specialized units," he said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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