Flap over Deputizing the Army Series: TEMPERING TERRORISM

Article excerpt

IN seeking to arm the federal government with new powers to combat home-grown terrorism, President Clinton is setting off alarm bells over a cherished democratic tenet: keeping the military out of domestic law enforcement.

As part of his package of antiterrorism measures triggered by last month's Oklahoma City bombing, Mr. Clinton is courting controversy because he wants to add a new provision to a federal law that would allow the military to participate in investigations of domestic terorrism cases involving chemical or biological weapons.

A previous revision to so-called Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which tightly regulates the circumstances under which the military may be used in domestic law enforcement, authorizes the Defense Department to join in the investigation of nuclear terrorism cases. Other revisions permit the military to provide technical expertise to federal authorities, including radar tracking of shipments of illegal drugs into the United States.

Despite the limited nature of the administration's new proposal, the idea of giving more domestic law enforcement power to the military is rekindling fears about potential abuse that echo a debate ignited by George Washington when he put down Pennsylvania's Whiskey Rebellion tax revolt with federal troops in 1794.

"The fear of the use of the military against American citizens to enforce federal law has been very controversial throughout history," notes John Chambers of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., an expert on the military's involvement with US civil authorities.

"Civil supremacy over the military is a basic American tradition," says Professor Chambers. "It is hallowed because it comports with individual liberty and the constraints on government. But, it is also hallowed because it has been violated at times."

The most flagrant abuses occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when the military infiltrated radical anti-Vietnam War groups and compiled dossiers on thousands of civilians. The fear of such abuse now finds resonance in the antigovernment citizen militias and activists across the political spectrum.

Says Louis Bograd of the American Civil Liberties Union: "Countries where the military serves in civilian police enforcement have traditionally had the most repressive regimes in the world."

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary who is now at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, says he opposes the administration plan as the military is already "treading a fine line because people have been interpreting the regulations broadly."

Mr. Korb says that he used to deny requests from law enforcement agencies for the military's help "particularly in the drug area. …