Copyright ©2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

The much criticized federal response to Hurricane Katrina has renewed debate over whether the military should play a larger role in the case of terrorist attack or natural disasters. Speaking to reporters today, the president called for a robust discussion of the issue. Currently, there are legal restrictions on what the military can do in such cases. They can provide humanitarian services, but the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act forbids the military from taking on any policing duties on US soil. Since the 9/11 terrorist attack, there have been calls to change those restrictions. There are also proposals for restructuring the National Guard so that it can be deployed more effectively during a domestic crisis.

This discussion raises many questions about the relationship between federal and state governments, the pressure on the military to fight wars overseas and provide security at home, and the wisdom of extending the power of the military. We'll be exploring those issues and more on today's TALK OF THE NATION. If you are from the regions recently affected by hurricanes or if you are involved in emergency response, we want to hear from you this hour. What should be the role of the military in responding to natural disasters? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And joining us now in Studio 3A is Siobhan Gorman. She is national security correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and she wrote about this story for today's paper. Thanks for being with us, Siobhan.

Ms. SIOBHAN GORMAN (Baltimore Sun): Great to be here.

NEARY: Tell us, first of all, what the president is saying about this issue in terms of possibly changing the role of the military, particularly in the case of natural disasters?

Ms. GORMAN: Well, the president hasn't put forward any specific proposals; although I'm told that there may be some in the works at the White House. Right now, it seems like he's sort of just floating the idea, putting it out there, saying this is something that he'd like to see Congress discuss and he'd like to see the country discuss. I think he's quite aware that this would--when you're looking at potentially altering a law from, you know, post-Civil War era, this is something that is a pretty significant change for the country. And he may just be sort of preparing people to think about these issues in a different way before they come up with a real proposal.

NEARY: Before we go on, let's talk about that law, that post-Civil War Posse Comitatus Act, and tell us a little bit about the context in which that act became law.

Ms. GORMAN: I probably--I don't know a whole lot about the history of it, but I do know that it was a post-Civil War sort of effort to try to reduce the sort of impact or direct influence that the military could have on civilian law-making and sort of keeping of the peace. It was seen that the Defense Department was going to be active in doing those kinds of things beyond our borders, but not necessarily in the event of sort of local law-making, law enforcement kinds of issues.

NEARY: As I understand it, I think it came, in part, out of concern of the former confederate states that the federal government would be interfering too much in their lives...

Ms. GORMAN: Yes. They didn't...

NEARY: ...part of the history there.

Ms. GORMAN: Yeah.

NEARY: So what--it--what are the restrictions exactly?

Ms. GORMAN: Well, the key one is really just that the military cannot come in without the invitation, for example, of a state's governor and, in addition, when they are invited in, they cannot take part in law enforcement activities. The National Guard, which is actually a state actor, can participate in law enforcement activities, but the active military--the Army, etc.--cannot.

NEARY: So what exactly happened and what went wrong specifically in the aftermath of Katrina that's got people thinking about this again?

Ms. GORMAN: Well, what went wrong was that they lacked a lot of coordination and communications, and I think that a lot of people point to the time when the active military, the 82nd Airborne, and some of the others finally arrived on the scene at the end of the week, I think it was Friday, and Katrina hit on a Monday, as being the real turning point in the rescue effort. And I think that that raised a lot of questions about, well, why didn't these people arrive sooner if all of the--if the storm was overwhelming all of the other resources that already existed on the ground?

NEARY: Now this is not the first time that this idea has come up after a hurricane, before we even get to 9/11. It came up after Hurricane Andrew, as well.

Ms. GORMAN: It did. It did, in 1992. Again, you had one of those situations where it wasn't until the 82nd Airborne arrived on the scene that people felt like things were brought under control a little bit, and the 82nd Airborne is a very elite Army unit that is capable of responding anywhere in the world within 18 hours, and so obviously, one would assume that they could respond anywhere in the US within that or perhaps a shorter time frame.

NEARY: And then, of course, the events of 9/11--also after 9/11, the terrorist attacks, there were also calls for changes in this act as well.

Ms. GORMAN: Yes, there were, because I think that there was a sense that in the event of an attack on US soil, that you might really need the kind of resources that only the military can bring to bear and, in fact, after 9/11, the military did launch the Northern Command, which is based in Colorado Springs. In fact, that's where the president visited this weekend, and that was a post-9/11 creation that started to bring to carve out a little bit more of a domestic role for the military, but the military has been kind of hesitant about taking on too much of a role.

NEARY: All right. Given that the president is calling for a discussion and that there have been--this issue has been sort of brewing in Congress since 9/11, where is it at now? What's going to happen now, would you say, in terms of congressional action, let's say?

Ms. GORMAN: In terms of congressional action, I think Senator Warner has sent a letter to the Defense Department sort of looking for some guidance and clarification. I think that very much, it's still in a discussion phase. I would not be surprised, like I mentioned, if we eventually, you know, maybe with the next couple months or so, saw a proposal coming out of the White House or even, you know, started to see bills coming out of Congress, but I think at the same time, when you're looking at changing laws that have been really ingrained not only in our statute, but in our culture for hundreds of years, it probably does require a little bit of public discussion beforehand, which is what we're watching happen now. But right now, I don't think the Defense Department even really knows quite what the president has in mind.

NEARY: And the Defense Department--what is their reaction to all this?

Ms. GORMAN: So far, their response is pretty quiet. I think that they're just looking for information in terms of what it is that the president really wants to see happen. In the past, with Hurricane Andrew, they were somewhat reluctant to take on a larger role. At the time, the military was looking at launching something called total force planning, which was actually going to incorporate the National Guard into more of a war-fighting sort of posture, and at the time back in the early '90s, there was some fear at the Pentagon that by having a greater domestic role, that that might cut against their flexibility to deploy forces overseas, and we may well have that concern now certainly with a need for forces overseas in Iraq and elsewhere.

NEARY: We're talking about the role of the military in natural disasters--in the case of natural disasters or perhaps terrorist attack. If you'd like to join our discussion, the number is 1 (800) 989-8255. Siobhan Gorman of the Baltimore Sun is with me in the studio, and joining us now is Rick Sylves. He is a political science professor at the University of Delaware. He's working on a book about presidential disaster declarations, and he joins us by phone from his office in Newark, Delaware. Thanks for being with us.

Professor RICK SYLVES (University of Delaware): Well, I'm happy to be here, Lynn, and it's good to hear Siobhan's voice, too.

NEARY: What are some of the concerns about the military playing a larger role, especially in the case of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina? What are people worried about?

Prof. SYLVES: Well, I think one of the things people have to remember is the military is what you use when all else fails, and I think some of the lessons that will be learned in studying the response to Hurricane Katrina is that we've established an incredibly complicated national response plan, and in the process, we weakened the Federal Emergency Management Agency, parceling out a lot of its best people, dividing its jurisdictions, moving its emphasis away from looking at disasters in terms of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery, and basically under Secretary Chertoff's reorganization in July, FEMA's fundamentally response agency, which isn't really the best idea going. I also think that there's problems with regard to the people in the past who have been appointed to run FEMA, both in the '80s and the early '90s, and at the present time, and we need people who are well-qualified disaster managers.

I think that Director Paulison is a good appointee at this time to run FEMA, but I'm not quite certain that other people were quite up to the job, at least on the scale that Katrina confronted the country. I also think that FEMA was very good in the '90s in establishing excellent relations with state and local governments. A part of what's happened is that with FEMA being weakened in Homeland Security, some of those ties have been diminished and also, at the same time, state and local governments are trying to morph themselves into many departments of homeland security in order to take advantage of Homeland Security funding and types of jurisdiction that they're entrusted with after 9/11, and I...

NEARY: So you seem to be arguing that FEMA should be strengthened before you leap to thinking that it's a military role that's needed...

Prof. SYLVES: Right. Yeah.

NEARY: ...a large military role that's needed?

Prof. SYLVES: Exactly. It--and as a matter of fact, I think the military already has all the authority it needs, including the active military to deal with disasters domestically. The key issue is that they're supposed to be--in a supplemental capacity, they're supposed to be on-hand to help, under certain limited circumstances, and these circumstances can be determined by governors, in the case of the National Guard, and clearly the active military with regard to the president. The president has national emergency powers that he can bring to bear to deploy the military and to take on extraordinary emergency powers. But the president's emergency powers are limited by Congress. He's limited to a year or the period in which he designates the emergency powers necessary, and he has the power...

NEARY: Maybe you could explain to us exactly what is triggered when the president declares a disaster area, for instance.

Prof. SYLVES: Well, when the president declares--one of the things that has happened that's very positive is that presidents--since President Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, was in office, presidents have issued declarations to mobilize for disasters before they occur; whereas up until the first Bush administration, there was a major reluctance to mobilize ahead of time until you got requests from the governor for a disaster declaration, and people realized that that was really not the best way to deal with particular life-threatening emergencies where federal assets could be used, including the military, to engage in life, safety and facilitate evacuations and do any number of other things. And so what I think is happening is that the key concern now is to first figure out, you know, how much of the National Guard is available to deal with natural disasters. And it's divided, obviously, between serving its duties and...

NEARY: Professor Sylves...

Prof. SYLVES: Sure.

NEARY: ...I want to take up that question of the National Guard when we return...

Prof. SYLVES: OK.

NEARY: ...from a short break.

Prof. SYLVES: Sure.

NEARY: We're talking about the role of the military in response to natural disasters. We're taking your calls at (800) 989-TALK. You can send us an e-mail to totn@npr.org.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

We're talking about the needs of the nation during a natural disaster and the appropriate role of the military. You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

My guests are Siobhan Gorman of the Baltimore Sun and Rick Sylves, political science professor at the University of Delaware. Professor Sylves, we were just talking about the role of the National Guard, and there are also some proposals out there for restructuring the National Guard so that it could be more effective in a crisis like that. Isn't that right?

Prof. SYLVES: Well, I believe so. I think that the National Guard's an important asset available to governors to deal with disasters. I think one of the concerns in the present circumstances is when the National Guard can be federalized by the president, and a key issue with regard to Katrina is whether disasters of the scale of Katrina now pose a national security concern to the point at which the president should federalize disasters on that scale in order to expedite use of both the National Guard and the active military, particularly the active military to deal with these things. That raises issues as to what kind of scale you have. How big is big? Will this be abused at the point that even routine disasters end up being federalized?

Big issues that surround this also is how much--who pays the bill? The Pentagon is going to be concerned about being reimbursed under current policy. When the Pentagon, the active military responds to a domestic disaster, they are reimbursed by the federal or state governments in some way for what they do.

One other point I just wanted to make briefly is that one of the concerns about bringing the active military in too quickly is that it might induce some degree of complacency on the part of local first responders, who are really the key linchpin that makes all of this work. And if you see responder after responder saying, `Well, I couldn't do anything. I was waiting for the cavalry to arrive,' this will be counterproductive to federal response to dealing with disasters--federal, state and local response to dealing with disasters in the United States. So I think in any consideration about reassigning authority and using the active military inside the United States, one has to walk very carefully through a number of constitutional issues, intergovernmental issues between the president and the governors, and who's going to pay the bill on these things, as well as when the authority, the military, particularly the active military, needs to stop.

NEARY: All right. Professor Sylves, before we let you go, I want to take one call from Glen, and he's in Jupiter, Florida. Hi, Glen.

GLEN (Caller): How you doing?

NEARY: Go ahead.

GLEN: Hi. I wasn't affected by the storms this year, but I certainly was last year. I live in Jupiter. It's just north of Palm Beach in Florida. And my concern is, as our Representative Foley has mentioned, the National Guard is being deployed to fight a front-line war, and that's not what they were designed for. They were designed to be just what the name implies, a National Guard force available for local and state security.

NEARY: So your sense is that if we weren't fighting the war in Iraq, there would be enough National Guard?

GLEN: Well, if we had a regular Army that was capable of fighting the war in Iraq, the National Guard would have been available in the case of Katrina. Just about twice as many Louisiana National Guard members would have been there, and, you know, they live there. They know their way around. The regular Army doesn't live there, and they should be coordinating with the first responders, because that's where they live, and if they see themselves getting overwhelmed, then it's certainly in their purview to get in touch with the governor and ask for federal help. I mean, it was great that the Navy was available to come in and lend the assistance that they can because, you know, in that case, they were really the ones that could do it.

NEARY: Glen, good comments. I'd like to hear our guest respond, so thanks so much for calling in.

GLEN: Thank you.

NEARY: With those comments, I think that, you know, those are sentiments that I've been hearing expressed, also concern that we're really stretched too thin militarily, and then in the course of that, Glen also raised another interesting point, which is that the National Guard would have sort of a local sensitivity that the military might not have. I wonder if you could just address those ideas, Professor Sylves.

Prof. SYLVES: Yes. I would be happy to do that. I think Glen names a number of really excellent points. Clearly, National Guards have been mortgaged to do a great number of things, perhaps things that people who signed up didn't expect they would necessarily have to do. As a result, the National Guard is kind of drawn thin across the country. But I want to say that in the response to domestic disasters, the National Guard is usually up to the job, and it's also the case that governors can share their National Guard units across the border. There's an elaborate system to allow that to take place. So whenever gaps there may be in terms of Guard numbers within a specific state can often be made up fairly quickly by Guard representatives or units from other states.

In the same sense, Glen also makes the good point about the active military being deployed in civilian contexts. Well, another aspect of this is the active military is already committed to do a great number of things, and be it--for people to walk around and assume that there are just huge numbers of active military people waiting to be called up to deal with civilian disasters is sort of a misunderstanding. These people already have jobs that involve a great amount of effort and work and resources and pulling them off what they're doing to deal with domestic disaster circumstances is not a costless thing. I mean, it does have implications and the concern is we don't want to compromise our national security in an international context to deal with domestic concerns that might be better addressed by other authorities, whether it be National Guard, whether it be other civilian agencies.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us, Rick.

Prof. SYLVES: Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Rick Sylves is a political science professor at the University of Delaware. He joined us by phone from his office in Newark, Delaware.

And, Siobhan Gorman, I just wanted to turn to you again. We were talking with you and with Professor Sylves about the fact that perhaps after 9/11, there may be a--we heard some proposals to change the Posse Comitatus Act, and I'm wondering if you have any sense of what the public sentiment--if the public sentiment may have changed since 9/11, that people might be more willing to see a larger role for the military. Do you have any sense of that?

Ms. GORMAN: From what I've been able to gauge, it does seem that the public apprehension about sort of the military involvement in our day-to-day lives has definitely diminished since 9/11. What we don't have a good sense of is what sort of role the public does want the military to play in our lives. But it certainly does seem, looking after Katrina and possibly even sort of a general change after 9/11, that it does help Americans feel a little bit more secure to feel that the military is on the case as well. It brings a certain amount of comfort or emotional support, even if what the active military is offering by way of skills or equipment isn't really all that different from what the National Guard is offering.

NEARY: We're talking about the role of the military in times of domestic crises, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks. If you'd like to join our discussion, give us a call at 1 (800) 989-8255.

And many people do have concerns about the potential new role of the military on the home front. And they come from both sides of the political fence. We turn now to Gene Healy, a senior editor at the Cato Institute. And he is also with me here in Studio 3A. Thanks for being here.

Mr. GENE HEALY (Cato Institute): Thanks for having me on.

NEARY: What concerns would you have about this idea of increasing the role of the military or allowing the military to play a larger role in times of natural disaster or domestic crises?

Mr. HEALY: Well, in the American legal tradition, we've always had a principle that the military is supposed to be a last resort and not a first responder, and I would want to see people who want to change this principle to meet--I think should have to meet a pretty high burden of proof. You don't want the 82nd Airborne on the streets of an American city enforcing order, unless you absolutely have to have that happen. That's where the law currently draws the line, as a last resort now...

NEARY: What are the dangers of that, in your mind?

Mr. HEALY: Well, there are a couple of dangers. As someone once put it, the military is trained to vaporize, not Mirandize. You know, soldiers are trained to be warriors, not peace officers, and that is the way they should be trained. But you can run into trouble when you mix these functions up. Another way you can run into trouble is by undermining military readiness. Because the policing function and the war-fighting function are so different, you can run into a situation where the military is stretched too thin, and the General Accounting Office actually recently looked at some of the domestic homeland security missions that the military had been tasked with since 9/11 and said that, you know, this was actually undermining combat readiness. So I think there are a number of reasons why you wouldn't want to change this basic principle.

NEARY: And what about the relationship between the federal government and state governments and how that--what are the concerns there?

Mr. HEALY: Well, the preference under the law now is that you would have a request from a state governor before you put the military into an active policing situation, and that can be overridden. I mean, one of the interesting things about this debate is if the idea is that we need to have federal authority that allows the military to be put in an active duty policing situation, even over the objections of the state governor, that authority already exists. It's just that the president has to think twice before he wants to invoke that authority.

NEARY: Right.

Mr. HEALY: I don't think we want to make that any easier. And I think federalism and the rule of law matter.

NEARY: Is there something that could be called in a little bit short of that? I mean, could the role of the National Guard be changed, for instance, so that it could be more effective?

Mr. HEALY: Well, I think one thing we should certainly look at before we start revising the principle that--of, you know, caution about using standing armies to keep the peace, one thing we really should look at is not treating the National Guard as if it's no different than the Army Reserve. There were, for example, 3,700 members of Louisiana's 256th Mechanized Infantry Brigade in Iraq with some equipment that could have been very useful for disaster relief. And I think before we start talking about sweeping changes in American law, we should think about, you know, what is the core mission of the National Guard? And it seems to me that disaster relief and, when necessary, dealing with civil disturbances is something that the National Guard, under the command of the state governors, is well-equipped to do.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Ken, and he's calling from Mississippi, I believe.

Hello, Ken?

KEN (Caller): Yes.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

KEN: Yeah. Hi. I'd like to comment about the military. Being ex-military and the whole deal--but I'm living this down here. We are currently homeless. My whole family's homeless. We lost everything. But I agree with the last caller about the role of the military, especially the 82nd Airborne, is not to deal with this type of thing. I think the only branch of the service that really--we really need here is the combat engineers. We have a local base in Gulfport, the Seabees, the 133rd Seabees, and they're equipped with everything that we actually need. They can actually come in--and we have several bridges that are out--they could build combat bridges in a couple of days so that we could have traffic going back and forth across the bridges. They come in with the heavy equipment to help us clear the roads. They can help us get potable water. That's what they do. To bring in the National Guard or any other force that's not their job, that's not necessary. We have police from every state that I can imagine here taking care of the policing.

NEARY: All right.

KEN: So I believe that the simplest thing to do would just be to up the force of the Seabees and create several more units that could be on hand just for this type of stuff and deploy them. You don't need the 82nd Airborne.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks for your call, Ken. I'm gonna ask our guests to respond to that, and I would remind all of our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Mr. HEALY: I think that that's exactly right and I think it's important to understand that the Posse Comitatus Act, you know, the long-standing federal law that restricts using the Army as a police force, doesn't--it's no barrier to that sort of--the help that the caller is talking about. It does not stand in the way of providing logistical support and assistance to civilian authorities.

NEARY: You know, but in New Orleans--oh, go ahead, Siobhan.

Ms. GORMAN: Oh, just one other point on that. I think that what Ken was pointing out was an important issue, also, in terms of being more--the state officials being more specific about what it is that they really need from, quote, unquote "the federal government" or, quote, unquote "the military." I mean, it was my understanding that even, you know, in the day before Rita, there were lots of requests, both from Louisiana and from Texas, saying, `We want federal troops,' and the Defense Department was scratching its head. It was saying, `Well, what skills do you need? What do you need us to do so that we can send the right people to you?' Because these folks are just not all interchangeable necessarily.

NEARY: But just one other question, because after Katrina there was a breakdown of security in New Orleans. I mean, that--and that's part of where I think some of these questions are coming from, that we all witnessed that and that was where perhaps some of this idea that, well, maybe we need the military to go in there when that happened, and it can happen--it could happen again.

Mr. HEALY: I think there were breakdowns all up and down the chain, from the municipal officials to--from local police force, state officials to federal officials. I think clearly one thing that has to happen after the Katrina disaster is that people at all of those levels start thinking about what they can do better with the massive authority that they already have. What I don't think is the answer--the answer is ultimately for them to think about how to do a better job. I don't think the answer, though, is what seems to be suggested as a militarized federal war on hurricanes. I don't think we need to fundamentally change American law to deal with this problem.

NEARY: Do you agree with the president, this is--it's a good time for a robust discussion about all this?

Mr. HEALY: Well, it's always a good time to repair to first principles and to think about fundamental questions like that, but I do--it does concern me because we've seen a lot of this after 9/11 as well. There's this notion that the military should be all things for all missions. There was a notion after 9/11, Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta actually suggested having Delta Force operatives on domestic American flights, you know, when they really ought--should be hunting al-Qaeda abroad. I think there is a tendency to believe that because the military is so good at the job that it does, that it should be tasked much more broadly with any problem that arises in American society, and so if the robust debate we're going to have is about that, well, I hope cooler heads prevail.

NEARY: All right. Gene Healy, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. HEALY: Thanks for having me on.

NEARY: Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute. And thanks, also, to Siobhan Gorman. She's national security correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.

And when we return from a break, we'll be joined by Retired Colonel Jack Jacobs to hear his thoughts on this subject.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Here are some of the stories NPR is following today. Europe's largest terrorism trial ended in Madrid today. Among the 18 people found guilty of belonging to or assisting al-Qaeda was a correspondent for the Arab satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera. And a shelter in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, is struggling to care for 500 hurricane evacuees. They have no power or water and only one medical technician. Temperatures are in the 90s and the crowd there include the elderly, infants and the sick. Those stories are coming up on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Right now we're talking about the needs of the nation during a natural disaster and the appropriate role of the military. We turn now to Jack Jacobs, a retired colonel from the US Army, and he joins us from his hotel in Phoenix, Arizona.

Thanks for being with us, Colonel.

Colonel JACK JACOBS (Retired, US Army): Good to be here.

NEARY: Now one of the reasons that people say this is a good idea is because the military sometimes can do a better job in these situations than anyone else. What is it that the military does better than anyone when it comes to disasters, like Katrina, for instance?

Col. JACOBS: Well, it sounds like it's very much different, fighting a war and doing the kinds of things that need to get done after a disaster, domestic disaster like Katrina, but the capabilities that the military has are such that they--many of them are useful in situations like this, and while the military would prefer to be out there closing with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver to kill or capture them, they can perform the kinds of things that are required in a disaster like Katrina. For example, the military has the capability to perform search and rescue at least as good and probably much better than anybody else.

NEARY: How would the military relate to other local organizations, federal organizations such as FEMA, for instance? I mean, who would be in charge?

Col. JACOBS: You ask the crucial question. There was--you know, Meez Vanderoa(ph) once said that the devil is in the details. It's probably not enough to say that the military can deliver supplies, evacuate people, set up housing and all the rest of that stuff. At the end of the day, multifarious organizations, each of which are charged with certain responsibilities within each of those, and what's absolutely required is that there be a strict chain of command, which I think is why the president's talking like he is...

NEARY: Yeah.

Col. JACOBS: There'd be a strict chain of command so that there's no question about whose responsibility is whose and whose authority is whose. I think if a disaster were contained wholly within one state, there would be very little question about whether or not you would use the military unless it was such a catastrophic disaster that you couldn't do without the capability that even the National Guard could provide. I think what many people are talking about here is a repetition of a disaster in which many states are involved and the kinds of fragmented delivery of services that you're suggesting would be impossible to do without some sort of centralized command, and the argument is that the military has not only the capability, but is organized to deliver it because it does have a centralized command.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call. Max in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Hi, Max.

MAX (Caller): How you doing?

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

MAX: Well, a couple observations, as many as time permits here, but I would--I was in the Convention Center on Wednesday. I know from personal experience--I was talking to a police officer Monday morning and she was almost out of gas in her car. She really didn't have any idea where she was gonna get any more. And while I understand from a practical aspect it makes sense for the 82nd to be able to deploy because of the speed at which they can do it. I mean, I hesitate to rush to make more changes when our response in that manner after 9/11 seems to have contributed to our inability to respond properly in this case.

NEARY: Now I'm sorry, I'm a little confused. You were in the Convention Center in New Orleans? Is that what you're saying?

MAX: I was. I was, on Wednesday.

NEARY: OK. OK.

MAX: And, you know, on Monday previous I'd actually been out in the Quarter and I was out clearing the street so a police officer could drive through and I had a chance to ask them what was going on, what the situation was. They obviously didn't know. And she looked weary, I would assume from having been up for, you know, two or three days previous to the storm preparing, and then not having any relief for two or three days after the fact. So I know why people want responders like, say, the 82nd Airborne to be able to deploy quickly, but I would hate for them to rush to make those changes before we fully understand what mechanisms within this new organization of power that we have contributed to the failure.

NEARY: All right. Well, let me see if the colonel can respond to those concerns, and thanks for your call, Max.

MAX: Sure.

Col. JACOBS: Yeah, I think that's everybody's concern. You certainly don't want to commit substantial forces which need to be used elsewhere and which may get in the way at a time when you don't need to. As far as having a coordinating headquarters, the military already has one established, the Northern Command. It's merely a question of giving them proper responsibility and assets and authority to get it done, and if there were a multistate catastrophe and it was decided that only a military response, an active-duty military response would be adequate to the task, then the system would be in place in order to do it. But there's no doubt about the fact that it should not be done willy-nilly, and I think that what many people are correctly concerned about is that because we have--we will have the capability--in fact, we do have the capability to provide active-duty military for civilian disasters, that we would just go ahead and do it as the first thing that we would do and, of course...

NEARY: Now you just said we do have the capability. That was one of my questions. I mean, isn't the military being stretched pretty thin right now?

Col. JACOBS: Well, it is, and I tell you, you have--there are two things about this. First it is, and we have the strange circumstance in which you got about half the people who are in Iraq, for example, are National Guard and Reserve troops, so then you would have active-duty people back in the States from which the National Guard comes.

NEARY: Right.

Col. JACOBS: And the second issue is that you--and the reason why you--one reason why you need to be very, very careful about providing active-duty military is that we do have a relatively small active-duty military, and as a result, the response needs to be for circumstances in which there is no other answer, and because we do have a wide variety of responsibilities worldwide and we can't pull troops away from there, from those places very, very easily. For example, your last caller suggested the 82nd Airborne Division. The 82nd Airborne Division keeps an immediate ready force that can be deployed instantaneously with--about a battalion's worth, between 750 and a thousand troops--immediately. But you see, if they're deployed to go to a domestic natural disaster, that means they cannot be deployed to go someplace else, and so we have to be very sparing--this asset needs to be sparingly applied.

NEARY: All right.

Col. JACOBS: Having said all that, I think the far bigger problem intellectually is not whether or not we actually have the assets, because if there was a catastrophe, we would provide the assets in some fashion. More significantly, the real question is what's the structure gonna be and what is the mechanism by which these forces would be dispatched?

NEARY: All right.

Col. JACOBS: And that's the toughest part, and that's--I think that's what's gonna engender the most debate.

NEARY: OK. Thanks so much, Colonel.

Col. JACOBS: You bet.

NEARY: Colonel Jack Jacobs is a retired colonel from the US Army, and he joined us from Phoenix, Arizona.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.