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