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Monday, September 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bush weighs greater role for military in disaster response

The Washington Post

Limits on military in U.S.


The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prohibits troops from engaging in domestic law enforcement.

Some believe rigid interpretations of the law may have slowed deployment of active-duty troops after Hurricane Katrina. U.S. lawmakers are considering whether to relax the law.

Others say an exception to the law could have allowed the president to waive it because of the disorder that followed Katrina. The exception is for insurrection against the government's authority and was invoked during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The law was a reaction to the deployment of federal troops to former Confederate states to supervise elections and maintain law and order.

Reuters, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today

SAN ANTONIO — President Bush yesterday called on Congress to consider a larger role for U.S. armed forces in responding to natural disasters, as he completed what White House aides called a weekend "fact-finding" mission to determine if the Pentagon needs more control.

"Clearly, in the case of a terrorist attack, that would be the case, but is there a natural disaster — of a certain size — that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?" Bush said after a briefing from military leaders at Randolph Air Force Base here.

"That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."

Bush has told aides that one of the major breakdowns in the Hurricane Katrina response was the federal government's inability to seize control of rescue and relief efforts. Under existing law and procedure, a state governor is in charge when natural disasters strike and is responsible for deploying the National Guard, though in certain cases the president can order troops to support local law enforcement.

Bush is asking Congress to consider a major change, potentially shifting federal responsibility for major natural disasters from the Department of Homeland Security to the nation's top military generals. The Defense Department has been hesitant to take such a role because of sensitivity to the idea of adopting a police presence on U.S. soil and because of strains on the armed forces from the war in Iraq.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, said a number of ideas are circulating. But Knocke described a narrower role for the military than becoming "the lead agency" for large natural disasters.

"We are not talking about DOD taking over federal response efforts to a catastrophe from start to finish," Knocke said. Instead, he cited three examples — maintenance of civil order, urban search-and-rescue support, and damage assessment — when state, local or other federal agencies are incapacitated or overwhelmed.

"We're talking about an ultra-catastrophe, where the need is such that the military's training and assets would meet an immediate need in support of Homeland Security coordination of the federal government's responsibility and recovery efforts," Knocke said.

Some skeptics have said Bush's remarks belatedly recognize that his administration and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco bungled in applying the military's existing capabilities to rescue Katrina victims. Rather than creating new laws and authorities, they say, government officials simply need to execute existing plans competently.

They say federal law, response plans and congressional studies — plus what happened this past week for Rita — make plain that there is already abundant authority to call in the military. But critics said Bush and Blanco were too slow to do so for Katrina.

There now are 49,000 active-duty and National Guard personnel supporting hurricane-relief operations, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Under the 423-page National Response Plan formally unveiled last winter, local military commanders are authorized and pre-approved "to respond to requests of civil authorities" for "immediate response" needs, including rescue, evacuation, medical treatment, restoration of vital services and safeguarding and distributing food and supplies, said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland School of Law.

The military is also allowed to provide whatever other disaster support is necessary. Traditionally the military acts at the behest of the so-called lead federal agency — in the case of a natural disaster it would be the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Homeland Security — and waits until requested to provide large numbers of troops. There are exceptions when the military has acted on its own, as a commander did in response to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The current National Response Plan developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks gives the secretary of defense authority to provide military support for disaster-relief efforts at the direction of the president.

However, active-duty troops generally cannot take on domestic law-enforcement roles, which is what many experts said was desperately needed to stop the rioting and violence in the streets of New Orleans after Katrina hit. National Guard troops under state control are allowed to take on law-enforcement responsibilities.

At Randolph Air Force Base, Maj. Gen. John White urged the president to create a national plan to better coordinate search-and-rescue efforts in cases of a major disasters. White said one glaring example of planning errors was when five helicopters showed up at the same time to rescue one person in New Orleans.

"That's the sort of simplistic thing we'd like to avoid," White told Bush. "That was a train wreck that we saw in New Orleans."

"Part of the reason I've come down here, and part of the reason I went to Northcom, was to better understand how the federal government can plan and surge equipment, to mitigate natural disasters," Bush said. "It's precisely the kind of information that I'll take back to Washington to help all of us understand how we can do a better job in coordinating federal, state and local response."

Bush met over the weekend with officials in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the headquarters of the U.S. Northern Command; Austin; San Antonio; and finally in Baton Rouge, La.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked on ABC's "This Week" program if the U.S. has the resources for the military to take the lead in disaster recovery, said, "We're capable of doing it, but have no doubt that there is a strain on the Guard in particular because of their requirements to be deployed to Iraq."

Louisiana's two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, said they endorsed giving federal troops a bigger role, though not at the expense of local officials.

"I'm not talking about superseding state authority or local authority," Vitter said on CNN's "Late Edition" program. "When a disaster is as big as at least Katrina, and you have this full-scale mobilization," the military rather than FEMA might be the proper federal entity to lead the effort, he said.

Landrieu said the military "has a very strong role to play, but so do our governors and our local officials."

News-show comments were reported by Bloomberg News.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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