Elite combat brigade for homeland security missions raises ire of ACLU

Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command. (Photo/Erin Rosa)

Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command. (Photo/Erin Rosa)

In the next three years the military plans to activate and train an estimated 4,700 service members for specialized domestic operations, according to Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command, which was created in 2002 for homeland defense missions.

The comments, made at the annual National Homeland Defense and Security Symposium in Colorado Springs last week, reveal more details about the recent stationing of active military personnel inside United States borders for what officials say is a mission centering around responding to catastrophic emergencies.

In September the Army Times reported that the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team — a unit based in Fort Stewart, Ga., that most recently spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle gear — would be put under the control of Northern Command, located on Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

Military representatives claim that the unit, now referred to as the Consequence Management Response Force, is only supposed to assist in responding to terrorist attacks or natural disasters, but that hasn’t stopped numerous civil liberties advocates from speculating just how closely the military will be involved with law enforcement issues falling under a state’s jurisdiction.

“This isn’t a military police brigade or a civil affairs brigade. This is actually a combat brigade being assigned a domestic mission,” said Mike German, national security counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington., D.C.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act Request last week with the Department of Justice and the Pentagon asking for records relating to the assignment of domestic forces to the Northern Command.

“One of our founding touchstones of democracy is that the military is not to be used against the American people. Over a hundred years ago that sentiment was put into law in the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from being involved in law enforcement functions,” German said. “Our hope is to find as much information as we can to challenge whether this is appropriate or not and to create some public awareness about what’s going on”

Now the commander of Northern Command claims that at least two more military units will be stationed inside the county in the next two years, contributing to an estimated total of 4,700 specially trained service members.

“It’s to help us manage the consequences of a large-scale event,” said Renuart. “We have one [unit] now trained and equipped and assigned to the Northern Command. We’ll grow a second one this calendar year of 2009 and a third one in the calender year 2010 so we can provide the nation three sets of capabilities that could respond to an event of the size of 9/11 or larger.”

According to Renuart, that means the units will have unique training in the logistics and medical fields.

“These are medical personnel, they’re chemical decontamination teams, they’re engineering teams, they’re logistics folks,” Renuart said. “It is really a force designed to respond to an event of catastrophic size. There have been some who say that this is designed as a law enforcement activity or that it will somehow be used to take away the authorities of a governor or a state, and that’s absolutely not the case.”

But German isn’t convinced.

“It’s fine for the general to say that,” the counter-terrorist operations specialist said. “But we want to know what the policies actually are, what the roles are and what the regulations are to see whether this is actually complying with the law.”

During the symposium Renuart admitted that the Northern Command has assisted regularly with law enforcement activities in the past.

“Here in Colorado every day we’re integrated with 45 other federal agencies in our headquarters planning for not only the natural disasters, but what would happen if a chemical attack was brought into our country by a terrorist organization,” Renuart said, emphasizing the command’s roles with intelligence and supporting anti-drug efforts.

“How do we track intelligence information that might identify networks of terrorists that might be around the world trying to get to us? How do we support law enforcement every day in the fight against narcotics entering illegally in our southwest borders? All of these things are part of the Northern Command mission.”

Said German, “It seems to be an incremental approach where the military is being used for narrow missions, but then more and more types of narrow missions until they all combine into one overarching mission.”

It is currently unknown what units may be assigned to domestic tasks in the next two years, but members of Northern Command will undergo a large-scale exercise this month simulating a destructive earthquake in southern California.

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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