The Military's Role in Disaster Response Legislation dating to the Civil War prohibits use of the U.S. military to enforce domestic law. As the White House, Congress and Pentagon consider a broader military role, conservatives and civil libertarians object.

The Military's Role in Disaster Response

The Military's Role in Disaster Response

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Legislation dating to the Civil War prohibits use of the U.S. military to enforce domestic law. As the White House, Congress and Pentagon consider a broader military role, conservatives and civil libertarians object.


Hurricane Katrina revealed serious flaws in the nation's disaster response system. The first responders, local police and firefighters, were crippled. The governors of states affected by the storm initially did not ask for the help of federal troops, and National Guard units did not have the equipment to deal with the disaster. In Washington, policy-makers are discussing whether the federal military should be brought in more quickly and play a bigger role. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

The role of active-duty US troops in any domestic disaster is limited under legislation known as the Posse Comitatus Act. It dates back to the Civil War, and it prohibits the use of federal troops in domestic law enforcement. Active-duty troops frequently are called upon to help in a disaster, but only in a supporting role, such as search and rescue. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush has suggested that the role of the military in disasters should be expanded. The Defense Department and congressional committees have begun to review the issue. Paul McHale is Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security.

Mr. PAUL McHALE (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security): The issue that the president has now presented to the Congress and to the nation is at least the consideration that when we have that truly catastrophic event, where DOD resources inevitably will provide most of the response, at least in the early phase, that we consider the possibility that under that extraordinary and, we hope, rare event, DOD might actually move into the lead for the response.

O'HARA: Because of the Posse Comitatus Act, federal troops assisting in a disaster leave law enforcement to the National Guard troops who serve under state authority. That is what happened during Katrina, but poor coordination between the various responders hampered efforts to rescue civilians. Paul McHale says limiting the role of federal troops does not allow for a satisfactory response in a major catastrophe.

Mr. McHALE: Coming out of Katrina, again, I think what the president has indicated is we all need to take a fresh look at these kinds of issues.

O'HARA: But giving the military more power within US borders is a sensitive issue in this country. Congressman John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, expressed his reservations during a hearing this week on the hurricane.

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I tell you, I get very nervous when they start talking about giving more power to the military under any circumstances.

O'HARA: Another issue that's under discussion is whether putting active-duty troops and National Guard forces under a single command would eliminate some of the problems that occurred during Katrina. General Steven Blum, head of the National Guard, identifies another problem. He says that during the response to the hurricane, the National Guard and active-duty forces could not communicate with one another. Blum testified this week before a congressional subcommittee.

General STEVEN BLUM (National Guard): In Louisiana, the National Guard was driving an Army Humvee, talking on an Army radio, but they could not communicate with the Army unit from the 82nd Airborne in the next street next to them or the 1st Cav on the other street next to them, because the active-duty radios are much more sophisticated, frequency-hopping, modern radios, and I'm dealing with radios, sir, that you probably saw the last time you were wearing battle fatigues.

O'HARA: General Blum told the committee that equipment for the National Guard in the past was not a high priority because the Guard was considered a Reserve force. He says that policy-makers assumed that if the National Guard were needed, there would be time to produce adequate equipment. Blum says that the National Guard has given the best of the equipment that it does have to its troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Guard commander says that what is left meets only 34 percent of what the Guard needs for domestic operations.

Gen. BLUM: Since 9/11/2001, everybody realizes that the world is a different place than what we had planned for, and that we're not going to have months and years to build up even for an overseas war fight, and we're going to have minutes and hours to react to hurricanes and attacks here on the homeland.

O'HARA: General Blum told lawmakers that if the National Guard is to protect the homeland during hurricanes or any other disaster, it must have the equipment to do the job. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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