NORTHCOM's Role Shifts from Terror to Disaster

The U.S. Northern Command was created after Sept. 11 to coordinate military response to outside threats. Increasingly, NORTHCOM is spending its time responding to natural disasters, such as hurricanes and forest fires.

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Military leaders and government contractors are meeting in Colorado Springs this week to discuss homeland security and the future of the military's Northern Command. NORTHCOM, as it's called, in the military world of acronyms, was created to coordinate the government's response to terrorist attacks here in the United States. But lately NORTHCOM has taken on another job: responding to natural disasters like hurricanes. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

As the Homeland Defense Symposium got under way in Colorado Springs, the head of NORTHCOM, Admiral Timothy Keating, was introduced with music so thunderous, it made the walls vibrate.

(Soundbite of music)

BRADY: Keating reminded the audience of NORTHCOM's primary mission: to deter, prevent and defeat terrorist attacks on the US. But he spent a lot of his speech talking about NORTHCOM's secondary mission: helping out during natural disasters.

Admiral TIMOTHY KEATING (NORTHCOM): Many folks don't realize the energy Katrina released was the equivalent of 1,000 Hiroshima explosions. That's a lot of energy to be dissipated. And if you were down there and saw it, you understand.

BRADY: A lot of military personnel were down there. NORTHCOM coordinated the military's response to the hurricane, and as Rita moved toward land last month, President Bush traveled with NORTHCOM to watch the storm's progress. In fact, nearly all the press releases put out by NORTHCOM in recent months focused on natural disasters. But that doesn't mean the agency's mission has changed, according to Major General Mark Volcheff(ph). He's the director of policy and planning at NORTHCOM and says natural disasters are simply more common.

Major General MARK VOLCHEFF (Director of Policy and Planning, NORTHCOM): We have more forest fires, we have more hurricanes, we have more earthquakes than we do actual terrorist events in this country, and that's good. Not good that we have the natural disasters but good that we don't have the terrorist events.

BRADY: Volcheff says natural disasters have become a bigger part of what NORTHCOM does, but he says that hasn't gotten in the way of the anti-terrorism mission. But national security consultant Suzanne Spaulding is not so sure. She spent 20 years on Capitol Hill working on security issues and says NORTHCOM's leaders are spending a disproportionate amount of time on natural disasters these days. She says NORTHCOM is responding to all the media coverage the hurricanes received. Spaulding says this sort of thing happens a lot in government, and she has a term for it: whale watching.

Ms. SUZANNE SPAULDING (National Security Consultant): Where everyone runs to the one side of the boat. When somebody spots a whale, everybody on the boat runs to one side of the boat, and you just have to hope that there's folks on the other side of the boat who are, you know, still looking out on that side of the boat.

BRADY: Spaulding says she hopes NORTHCOM is still paying attention to its primary mission of looking out for terrorists. But she says it's difficult to say for sure because that side of the boat isn't discussed much in public. Spaulding says that's a problem because NORTHCOM and the Department of Defense are engaged in activities that make a lot of Americans uncomfortable.

Ms. SPAULDING: What is the appropriate role for DOD, if any, in domestic intelligence collection? They clearly are engaged in domestic intelligence collection. And we have not had a robust public discussion-debate about that.

BRADY: Spaulding says these issues go beyond the Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents the military from acting as a domestic police force. For example, the act doesn't address domestic intelligence collection. But issues like that weren't a big part of the discussion at the Homeland Defense Symposium in Colorado. Participants there were more focused on how to detect future terrorist threats to the country, and just as much how to respond better to the next natural disaster. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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