Military Role in Domestic Emergencies Reviewed

Should rules for military response to domestic emergencies be changed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? President Bush and some in Congress are looking at the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the military from enforcing the law.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

President Bush is monitoring Hurricane Rita at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. That's the seat of the recently created US Northern Command that's providing military and logistical support as the storm bears down on the Gulf Coast. Last week when he spoke to the nation from New Orleans, Mr. Bush said Hurricane Katrina underscored the need to revise rules on how the military responds to such emergencies.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces.

SIMON: In the Congress, some of the president's allies are specifically calling for a review of the law barring the military from doing law enforcement duties, the 127-year-old Posse Comitatus Act. More from NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Last week, John Warner, the Republican chair of the Armed Services Committee, rose in the Senate and made this proposal.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): The time is come that we should just reflect on the Posse Comitatus Act and other statues which have stood by and served this nation quite well in years past.

WELNA: Congress enacted Posse Comitatus in 1878 at the end of Reconstruction. It did so to assert greater control over federal troops deployed at polling places by county sheriffs in the South. The law forbids using active-duty federal troops for searching or arresting civilians or seizing their property unless authorized to do so by Congress. Such law enforcement, said Senator Warner, should normally be done by civilians.

Sen. WARNER: But sometimes, and this may be one--we'll have to examine the facts--they become so overwhelmed or so incapacitated by a natural disaster or perhaps a terrorist attack that the armed forces may have to perform some of those duties. So we want to make sure that the president has that flexibility.

Mr. MACKUBIN OWENS (National Security Instructor, Naval War College): I hate to say it, but I'm thinking that maybe even some of the senators and so forth who are calling for this don't really what the Posse Comitatus Act does.

WELNA: Mackubin Owens teaches national security at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and is writing a history of civil-military relations in the US. He fears an apolitical military could become politicized and resented if it's too easy for a president to wave Posse Comitatus.

Mr. OWENS: My real problem is we strike in on this idea that, well, the military's just another tool that we ought to be pulling whenever anybody in the United States thinks something's too hard for everybody to do. It's just going to get the military away from what it should be doing.

WELNA: Others are alarmed by what a revision of Posse Comitatus might mean for civil liberties. Senator Tom Harkin is an Iowa Democrat.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): This whole idea of empowering the military and stuff to do normal police function is anathema to American freedoms and to our American system.

WELNA: Tim Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union agrees. Army troops, he says, are trained to kill.

Mr. TIM EDGAR (American Civil Liberties Union): The danger is that the military in general are not trained and it's not their constitutional function to enforce the law against American citizens and residents with respect for constitutional rights and freedoms.

WELNA: Congress has already lifted some restrictions on Posse Comitatus in recent years. Troops can now used in counter-narcotics operations. They can also respond to weapons of mass destruction attacks. And, as House Armed Services chair Duncan Hunter points out, National Guard troops already can do law enforcement when they're under a governor's command.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): Well, I don't know if we necessarily need to change this law to make the National Guard any more effective in disasters.

WELNA: Similar caution regarding Posse Comitatus is being sounded by Republican Senator Susan Collins, who heads the Homeland Security Committee.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): We've agreed that it does need review, but it needs careful review. It--that would be a major policy change, and I think we have to proceed carefully.

WELNA: Other lawmakers are urging that before any changes are made to Posse Comitatus, a thorough and some say independent investigation must be done to know if laws or humans are to blame for what went wrong in the response to Katrina.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

SIMON: And here is the latest news as Hurricane Katrina continues to move inland. The storm made landfall early this morning--a little after 2:30 this morning Central time--and is currently pounding communities along the border between Texas and Louisiana, including Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Port Arthur, Texas, with drenching rains and winds in excess of over 100 miles an hour. The Category 3 storm came ashore east of the huge oil-refining centers of Beaumont and Port Arthur, with sustained winds topping 120 miles per hour. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 85 miles from the eye, which had the effect of uprooting trees and downing and damaging hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes and buildings. A 20-foot storm surge is expected along the coast of Louisiana.

In Vinton, Louisiana--that is 10 miles west of Lake Charles--police have reported that several homes and buildings are on fire, perhaps from broken gas mains. Houston and Galveston, which have evacuated their populations, were spared a direct hit from this powerful storm, but of course they will not be spared much wind and much rain damage, and perhaps much flooding, as Hurricane Katrina continues to move inland, continues to move up the coast. And now there is concern that the storm at some point is going to stall, which will have the effect of swirling winds and rains in parts Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.

We are going to continue to follow the news of Hurricane Rita as it moves inland this morning on WEEKEND EDITION and other NPR news programs.

And you're listening to live coverage on WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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