Delicate Task of Rallying Public about Threat of Terrorism Pentagon Worries about Biological Attacks, but Many Americans Are Waryof Bigger Military Role in Civilian Life

By Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Delicate Task of Rallying Public about Threat of Terrorism Pentagon Worries about Biological Attacks, but Many Americans Are Waryof Bigger Military Role in Civilian Life


Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As he steps up efforts to thwart biological and chemical terrorism, President Clinton has asked the military to study ways to help local authorities cope with the potentially catastrophic consequences of such attacks.

But in drafting a plan to present to Mr. Clinton for his approval this summer, Pentagon officials are aware it will also have to pass rigorous scrutiny in another critical quarter: the American public.

Winning popular support for what will essentially be an expanded home-front role for the military may not be easy. On one hand, defense officials know the military is the only part of the federal government with the expertise and resources to handle chemical and biological warfare. On the other, these officials need no reminders of Americans' deep aversion to the military's involvement in domestic law enforcement and the nation's historic antipathy to anything smacking of overweening centralized power. "We are not seeking to become involved in this," insists Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre. "But we have been asked to be involved because we are the only part of the government that has the resources that can be mobilized." The Pentagon's challenge, experts say, will be convincing a majority of Americans, now enjoying the security of being the world's sole superpower, that the threat of chemical and biological terrorism warrants a bigger role for the armed forces. While there is a widespread perception that terrorism is a danger, there is also "a majority sentiment that the Pentagon tends to cook things up and exaggerate the threat," says Steve Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes. "Some people might believe that they are trying to scare them to justify an increase in the defense budget." Civil libertarians charge that civil liberties have already been eroded by antiterrorism laws pushed by Clinton since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Among other measures, they cite changes to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which limits the military's use in law enforcement. The changes allow the Pentagon to assist in investigations of chemical and biological terrorism. For them, the plan being drafted by the Pentagon is another step in the wrong direction. "The best way to convince the public that the military isn't crossing the line into civilian law enforcement is to draw the line darker and heavier, not to blur it as the administration proposes yet again," says Greg Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington. …

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