Homeland Offense: Washington Contemplates Deploying the Armed Forces for Domestic Law Enforcement

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AMERICANS HAVE BECOME so inured to the sight of federal troops fighting fires, rescuing flood victims from rooftops, and engaging in drug interdiction on the border that few eyebrows were raised when news broke that 20,000 active-duty infantry would soon be deployed on American soil for so-called homeland defense.

But critics say this development--announced by U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) in October--is unprecedented and further evidence of a military mission-creep into domestic affairs, particularly in areas for which the National Guard and Reserves are already suited.

"I don't get it. I don't understand why they are further encumbering active-duty brigades with this kind of mission," says Winslow Wheeler, author of America's Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress and one of Washington's few civilian experts on the Pentagon's Byzantine budget. "It sounds like someone is expanding his empire."

Pentagon officials say that having a permanent, ready-reaction force capable of responding to a catastrophic event--natural or manmade--is a sensible and necessary outgrowth of post-9/11 national security. But the move has constitutional experts, civil libertarians, and retired and active military scratching their heads. Politicians are now demanding answers, wondering how close the military is to violating the Posse Comitatus Act, the 1878 federal law passed after Reconstruction to prevent federal troops from conducting domestic law enforcement. A separate Department of Defense directive prohibits the Navy and Marines from engaging in such activities.

"We were encouraging the Department [of Defense] to do something different than this," says an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee thinks the federal government "jumped without weighing the pros and the cons," while reacting to fears that the country would not be able to respond effectively to a future disaster. "[Leahy] asked for a briefing and is watching how it is being handled." But like any expansion of Washington's power, a dramatic reversal now seems unlikely unless President Barack Obama gets personally involved.

Meanwhile, the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT) is back from duty in Iraq and now training at Fort Stewart, Georgia as the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High-Yield Explosive Consequence Management Response Force (CCMRF, pronounced "sea smurf.")

Other forces will join these soldiers to form a total of four domestically garrisoned BCT's--or about 20,000 troops--by 2012, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Almarah Belk. From here on, said Belk, CCMRF will have "unique training" in disaster recovery, with "equipment and personnel that cannot be found anywhere else in the federal government." She insisted that, in adherence to Posse Comitatus, the forces would not be enforcing the law.

"Their primary role is to augment the consequence management efforts of the first responders" at the state level, she told TAC. CCMRF won't be called in unless requested by governors or if the president declares an emergency. That sounds justified, given fears of another 9/11-style attack and widespread disgust at how federal authorities reacted to Hurricane Katrina, but the last part--if the president declares an emergency--raises some flags.

"If you hand power over to a political official, the chances that it might be abused are better than not," says Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, author of Great American Hypocrites and a former constitutional litigator. "The potential for mischief--even if it is not intended right now or there is no specific plan for abuse--is quite high if we allow the president to use the military for domestic purposes."

Greenwald and others point out that there are safeguards such as Posse Comitatus--loosely translated from Latin, "the power of the country"--preventing troops from rolling into town, setting up checkpoints, and arresting people. …