Critics question plans to deploy 20,000 troops in U.S. for domestic security

Civil libertarians and plain old libertarians are sounding the alarm over Pentagon plans to station 20,000 uniformed troops stateside to respond to domestic “catastrophes,”including nuclear, chemical or biological attacks, the Washington Post reports. The deployment, reported by The Colorado Independent’s Erin Rosa a month ago, includes a 4,700-troop combat brigade based at Fort Stewart, Ga., under the command of the U.S. Northern Command’s Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., in Colorado Springs.

Members of Congress and the Bush administration have been pushing for years to bolster domestic military preparedness, claiming it’s the only way to respond to a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. Critics counter the move is contrary to the 130-year-old Posse Comitatus Act, which restricts the military’s role in domestic law enforcement. Here’s the law, in its entirety, cited in a 2002 Department of Homeland Security article arguing that its common interpretation is flawed:

Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

— Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1385

The Pentagon’s plans to build on NorthCom’s brigade include adding two more brigades of similar size and drawing on 80 smaller National Guard and reserve units totaling 6,000 soldiers, with an aim to have all the units in place by 2011. The shift has been building for years:

Military preparations for a domestic weapon-of-mass-destruction attack have been underway since at least 1996, when the Marine Corps activated a 350-member chemical and biological incident response force and later based it in Indian Head, Md., a Washington suburb. Such efforts accelerated after the Sept. 11 attacks, and at the time Iraq was invaded in 2003, a Pentagon joint task force drew on 3,000 civil support personnel across the United States.

In 2005, a new Pentagon homeland defense strategy emphasized “preparing for multiple, simultaneous mass casualty incidents.” National security threats were not limited to adversaries who seek to grind down U.S. combat forces abroad, McHale said, but also include those who “want to inflict such brutality on our society that we give up the fight,” such as by detonating a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city.

In late 2007, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England signed a directive approving more than $556 million over five years to set up the three response teams, known as CBRNE Consequence Management Response Forces. Planners assume an incident could lead to thousands of casualties, more than 1 million evacuees and contamination of as many as 3,000 square miles, about the scope of damage Hurricane Katrina caused in 2005.

The American Civil Liberties Union and libertarian Cato Institute questioned the expansion:

Domestic emergency deployment may be “just the first example of a series of expansions in presidential and military authority,” or even an increase in domestic surveillance, said Anna Christensen of the ACLU’s National Security Project. And Cato Vice President Gene Healy warned of “a creeping militarization” of homeland security.

“There’s a notion that whenever there’s an important problem, that the thing to do is to call in the boys in green,” Healy said, “and that’s at odds with our long-standing tradition of being wary of the use of standing armies to keep the peace.”

Military units have long responded to domestic emergencies — including Hurricane Katrina and the 1992 Los Angeles riots — but the Pentagon’s proposal would change the ground rules.

Bert B. Tussing, director of homeland defense and security issues at the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership, said the new Pentagon approach “breaks the mold” by assigning an active-duty combat brigade to the Northern Command for the first time. Until now, the military required the command to rely on troops requested from other sources.

“This is a genuine recognition that this [job] isn’t something that you want to have a pickup team responsible for,” said Tussing, who has assessed the military’s homeland security strategies.

The brigade assigned to NorthCom — the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team — returned earlier this year after a 15-month deployment in Iraq and is scheduled to redeploy abroad in 2010. Keeping the domestic force staffed up with two wars under way will be expensive, a military analyst told the Post. “It’s one thing to decide upon a course of action, and it’s something else to make it happen,” said Paul McHale, assistant defense secretary for homeland defense. “It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.”

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald wrote a lengthy examination of the problems with domestic military deployment when news first broke in September, concluding with this observation:

There’s no need to start manufacturing all sorts of scare scenarios about Bush canceling elections or the imminent declaration of martial law or anything of that sort. None of that is going to happen with a single brigade and it’s unlikely in the extreme that they’d be announcing these deployments if they had activated any such plans. The point is that the deployment is a very dangerous precedent, quite possibly illegal, and a radical abandonment of an important democratic safeguard. As always with first steps of this sort, the danger lies in how the power can be abused in the future.

CORRECTION 10/3/08: Glenn Greenwald’s first name was misspelled and confused with above.

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Ernest Luning

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