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
that can be mobilized."
The Pentagon's challenge, experts say, will be convincing a
majority of Americans, now enjoying the security of being the
sole superpower, that the threat of chemical and biological
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
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. …