The General Nobody Knows: The Charismatic Chief of Northern Command Takes Charge of Homeland Troops

By Hirsh, Michael | Newsweek, July 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

The General Nobody Knows: The Charismatic Chief of Northern Command Takes Charge of Homeland Troops


Hirsh, Michael, Newsweek


Byline: Michael Hirsh

It's a blistering day on the plains of Colorado, and Gen. Ed Eberhart strides into his brand-new "situational awareness center" at Northern Command. Eberhart may be the most powerful man in America nobody has really heard of: he's in charge of military deployments against domestic terror. A frisson of activity fills the room. In seconds every soldier is either standing or halfway out of his computer console. Eberhart's staff doesn't get to see him much: in the nine months since Northcom was created, he's been to dozens of states, visiting National Guard and Coast Guard bases, local fire, police and paramedic units, even Rotary Clubs--forging the loose network that might respond to a domestic terror attack. Eberhart waves his team back to their places. The duty officer is at his side. "Everything quiet?" Eberhart asks amiably, eying the array of flat computer screens on the front wall. "Anything new down in Arizona?" "Nothing new on the fires right now, sir. We're monitoring a suspicious package found on a New York subway." Eberhart nods, his ruddy face inscrutable. He gives no orders. There isn't anything he can do.

Soon Eberhart will be back to meeting and greeting locals again. Next month he redeploys to Las Vegas, where he'll join with civilian officials in a giant exercise involving a hypothetical terror strike (even President George W. Bush will have a part). For an ex-fighter pilot who also commands Norad, the ultrasecret cold-war defense complex buried in nearby Cheyenne Mountain, starting up Northcom has been as much about politics as spit and polish. In one sense, it's the kind of thing U.S. commanders haven't had to address since Union generals puzzled over what to do about the rebellious ladies of the Confederacy. How should American soldiers behave when deployed among Americans? Eberhart's forces won't be occupying U.S. cities--his mantra is that Northcom doesn't move until asked by local, state or federal civilian authorities--but he knows Northcom has "a different mission set" than the other four U.S. regional commands around the globe.

Mainly, Eberhart is keen to show he's sensitive to the deepest of American fears, that the military might wrest control from civilians. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 bars U.S. troops from enforcing U.S. laws. "It's the elephant in the room," says Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the Select Intelligence Committee, who joined a congressional trip to Eberhart's headquarters in Colorado Springs last month to figure out just what Northcom is up to. ("Nobody really knows it exists yet," says Rep. Jennifer Dunn.) But, Harman adds, the Posse Comitatus ban "is not absolute. It's like the First Amendment. You can't cry fire in a crowded theater and you can't always block the U.S. military on U. …

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