During the 1996 Olympics Games, several members of Congress frowned on the dispatching of hundreds of Army troops to Atlanta to help local authorities deal with a possible terrorist attack.
At the time, critics denounced the use of soldiers in a domestic counterterrorism role as inappropriate and inconsistent with the military war-fighting mission.
Times have changed, however. Not only does the Defense Department now support specialized units to intervene in domestic terrorist emergencies, but it also has been tasked by Congress to help prepare local officials around the United States for possible weapon of mass destruction attacks.
The idea is to capitalize on the Army and Marine Corps expertise in defending troops against chemical, biological or radiological onslaughts on the battlefield. U.S. national security policy makers express growing fears that the next victims of these horrific weapons may well be homeland-based.
Domestic preparedness against weapons of mass destruction is not a Defense Department "primary mission but a support mission to law enforcement," says Walter L. Busbee, deputy assistant defense secretary for chemical and biological defense, at the recent Worldwide Chemical Conference in Fort McClellan, Alabama, hosted by the Army Chemical School and the National Defense Industrial Association.
The Clinton administration requested about $700 million this fiscal year for chemical and biological defense. Approximately $200 million would fund training and equipment for state and local emergency personnel who respond to terrorist attacks involving chemical and biological weapons.
But while the Pentagon's domestic preparedness mission commands a minuscule share of the defense budget, it is nonetheless receiving close attention from the agency's top leadership.
A recent speech by Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre is a case in point. He tells a Washington, D.C. audience that the Pentagon role in this arena is critical because the threat of domestic terrorism is compelling. What has emerged, he says, is a "willingness by terrorists to contemplate the use of chemical or biological weapons."
This menace, he asserts, lurks in unpredictable places.
"It's obviously passe now to refer to the sarin attack in Tokyo. But, if ever there were a wake up call, it was that. Or a couple of homegrown kooks out in Nevada that want to pretend they've created anthrax to poison Americans ... It's an unusually difficult problem to deal with. And for the first time, our government is seriously now talking about homeland defense in very significant and profound ways," Hamre says.
In the United States, the Defense Department is typically not expected to deal with internal threats. Military forces are trained and equipped to defend against conventional threats beyond U.S. shores. According to Hamre, this "will be changing in coming months."
That is because a terrorist incident using chemical or biological agents would quickly outstrip the ability of local emergency authorities to handle these emergencies. Hamre believes military forces are better able to deal with consequences of chemical, biological or nuclear use, especially if they result in mass casualties.
Ongoing efforts by the Defense Department to bolster domestic preparedness, he adds, "demonstrate that the United States firmly believes the threat from terror weapons and terrorism is very real and increasing."
The proficiency acquired by military units to confront potential chemical or biological attacks from Saddam Hussein, officials say, will prove of great value to domestic "first responders." These are the local firefighters, police officers, and medics-those who are first on the scene when emergencies occur.
In domestic emergencies, the Pentagon is not in charge, but will support the local authorities, says Busbee in an interview during the Fort McClellan conference. …