Bringing the War Home
by Robert Dreyfuss
The Nation magazine, May
Just a year after the attacks of September
11, the Pentagon finally achieved a goal it had been seeking for
years: the establishment of a military command for the domestic
United States. The supposed rationale for creating | the US Northern
Command (Northcom, in Pentagon parlance) is primarily an antiterrorist
one: | to use the armed forces in response to a September 11-style
or even more severe attack. "It's a recognition by the Department
of Defense that the world has in fact changed," says Pete
Verga, a l retired US Army officer who served as the first head
of the Pentagon's Homeland Security Task Force. "The idea
that the homeland is not a combat zone turned out not to be true."
In fact, Northcom is in some respects
just an extension of, trend that has been going on for some time:
the weakening of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits
the use of the military to enforce US laws. This trend accelerated
with the passage o the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement
Official Ac in the early 1980s, along with other laws assigning
domestic task to the armed forces as part of the War on Drugs.
Many Bush Ad ministration officials were early Northcom supporters,
among them Lewis Libby, a key player in Vice President Cheney's
office who was a member of a working group that created a study
called "Defending the U.S. Homeland," published by the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1999. That study
suggested that the Defense Department be given responsibility
for domestic antiterrorism as well as "monitoring crossings
of the US border" and "protecting the perimeter of key
But where supporters see the establishment
of Northcom as an important part of the "war on terror,"
the American Civil Liberties Union calls it dangerous. "It
is a major departure from the tradition of keeping the military
out of law enforcement that will reverberate for decades to come,"
says Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the ACLU's Washington
office. And indeed, except for the most unlikely, extreme cases,
it's difficult to envision a scenario in which the military could
play an effective antiterrorist role within the United States.
"Last Thanksgiving , outside Miami International Airport,
there were National Guardsmen in a tank, as if Al Qaeda was going
to roll up in a military-style assault," scoffs Gene Healy
of the libertarian Cato Institute, which has monitored the increasing
involvement of the military in domestic law enforcement. "It
does weird things to our political culture when we start getting
used to armed troops on the streets, that we find that comforting,"
he says. "It makes the United States start looking like we're
not a democracy."
At Northcom headquarters at Peterson Air
Force Base in Colorado Springs, officials are busily getting things
up to speed, with a first-year budget of $70 million. Its staff
will soon have its full complement of 500. Agencies with permanent
liaison personnel at Northcom include the FBI, CIA, the National
Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National
Imagery and Mapping Agency, which operates spy satellites. Northcom
also has a Washington office, which provides liaison with the
Justice Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
More than 200 people will be engaged in gathering domestic intelligence,
receiving information from local and state police as well as US
intelligence agencies-reviving critics' memories of how Army intelligence
units spied on civilians during the cold war.
The commander of the Northern Command
is US Air Force four-star Gen. Ralph Eberhart. Tall, slender and
silver-haired, with a chestful of medals, Eberhart looks like
someone straight out of Central Casting. Last fall, he addressed
a conference at the National Defense University in Washington,
where he noted that before September 11 the idea of something
like the Northern Command was a nonstarter. "It was too hard
to get our minds around how to establish a regional command for
North America," he said. Now that Northcom is up and running,
Eberhart is resolute. "We will," he said, "do what's
necessary to protect or to mitigate the situation, if something's
When I asked him about what kind of support
his command could provide for US law enforcement, he cited recent
experiences at the Super Bowl, the Olympics and air patrols over
US cities, and he promised to try actively to engage the military
in future events. "Day in and day out, we're going to be
working with the [Department] of Homeland Security," he said.
"If it's inside the United States, and we think we have capabilities
that we think are applicable, then we will offer those."
Making it clear that his unit is not just designed to bring in
blankets, tents and medical supplies, he said that his command's
engagement will depend on what he called "probability of
kill," referring to the armed forces' ability to neutralize
Last year, near the height of the post-September
11 homeland security frenzy, armed National Guard units took up
positions at border crossings in Maine, Vermont, New York, North
Dakota, Minnesota and Montana, and uniformed (but unarmed) National
Guard units stood watch at other spots along the borders with
Mexico and Canada. Against the advice of the National Guard Bureau
itself, state leaders and members of Congress, the Defense Department
placed the troops under its command, making them part of the US
armed forces rather than allowing them to serve in their usual
role as state-controlled militia. "We're making a presence
here," Jacob Pierce, a specialist in the Army National Guard
serving in Sandy Bay Township, Maine, told the Associated Press.
"People look a little more intimidated when they see me."
Also last year, during the 2002 Winter
Olympics in Salt Lake City, nearly 5,000 soldiers-including 3,100
from the Guard and 1,800 members of the regular armed forces-surrounded
the arenas, flew air patrols above the city and deployed hightech
surveillance equipment. At the time, 4,000 US soldiers were occupying
Afghanistan after ousting its Taliban regime, leading Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to tell war-whooping troops in Utah:
"We have more people in Utah participating in this Joint
Task Force-Olympics...than we do in Afghanistan." Besides
the highly visible combat air patrols, flown round the clock out
of nearby Hill Air Force Base, the Pentagon put armored vehicles,
snipers, military police and antiterrorism specialists on the
ground, and a dozen Black Hawk helicopters in the air. "We
had everything from Marines on hilltops with radar units to troops
on the ground with magnetometers running security checkpoints,"
says a Defense Department official.
The Olympics, a high-profile public event,
was blanketed with military protection because it was designated
a "national security special event." But in fact, so
riddled with loopholes is the Posse Comitatus tradition and law
that the President can decide to deploy the armed forces and the
National Guard on his own authority. "The consistent DoD
view has been that the President has sufficient legal authority
to use the military in the US when he determines that doing so
is appropriate," says Pentagon spokesman Maj. Ted Wadsworth.
That's exactly what happened after September 11, when troops took
over airports and downtown intersections and flew combat air patrols
over major US cities. Federalization of National Guard troops
is not a new phenomenon (it was used sporadically in the civil
rights era), but in the current climate it is something that could
come to be regarded as routine. Pentagon officials cite the precedent
of the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles after the not-guilty verdict
in the trial of police officers charged with beating Rodney King.
Then, nearly 10,000 members of the California National Guard were
federalized on orders from President Bush, who sent an additional
4,000 Army soldiers and Marines to Los Angeles to serve as a virtual
Verga, the former Homeland Security official,
says that the Pentagon does not feel at all constrained with regard
to deploying forces within the United States. "We've not
come across situations where we're restricted by Posse Comitatus,"
he says, adding that the military's usefulness can come in many
shapes and sizes. It could mean providing high-tech equipment,
such as nightvision goggles, to the police, or it could mean providing
local authorities with a helicopter. It could also mean simply
providing additional manpower to local or state police. "Or,"
he says, "it could mean suppressing a riot, the kinds of
things that happened in the 1960s or more recently in Los Angeles."
The specter of the military patrolling
streets, making arrests and conducting house-to-house searches
is exactly what civil libertarians fear. Edgar of the ACLU cites
the case of Jose Padilla, an alleged would-be terrorist who is
an American citizen, who was seized by the military and held incommunicado.
"The notion that the US military could march into your home
and cart you off to the brig is a frightening one," Edgar
says. "Before the incarceration of Padilla, it was inconceivable."
According to the ACLU, the Posse Comitatus law is so weakened
now that there is very little to prevent the armed forces from
carrying out arrests, setting up roadblocks and performing search-and-seizure
sweeps. And the Pentagon agrees. "Whether military personnel
will have the authority to detain individuals or be given arrest
authority depends upon the specific facts of each case,"
Still, both state officials and the Defense
Department have often preferred, so far, to err on the side of
caution. During the Olympics, Utah state officials fought to have
the state's National Guard kept under state control. Bob Flowers,
Utah's commissioner of public safety and thus responsible for
the state's homeland security, who oversaw Olympic security, says
that the Defense Department itself was reluctant to deploy the
regular armed forces to Utah, until prodded by the White House.
The issue, he says, "goes to the essence of our Constitution."
The National Governors Association agrees; reflecting widespread
uneasiness among state officials over the federalization of the
National Guard for border duty last year, it has issued a policy
paper stating its preference that the Guard be kept under state
Some members of Congress also question
whether the involvement of the military domestically may be going
too far. "We're certainly concerned about keeping a clear
line between military and civilian authority," says a key
Senate staffer, who adds that both Republicans and Democrats were
startled by the Pentagon's .decision to deploy federalized National
Guard forces along the borders. Later this year, Republican Senator
John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services
Committee, plans to convene hearings to support his view that
legislation may be needed to explicitly overrule the Posse Comitatus
It's early in the government-wide reorganization
of homeland security, and the ultimate role of the US military
is still in play. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is
still taking shape, there's talk about the creation of a National
Intelligence Agency and the whole alphabet soup of law enforcement
and intelligence agencies is being stirred vigorously. How the
domestic antiterrorism effort ultimately makes use of the armed
forces, and Northcom's relationship to the FBI, the CIA and the
DHS, is not yet determined. Liberals and libertarians alike can
be expected to fiercely resist an expansion of the armed forces'
role in domestic law enforcement, and-just as they resisted greater
involvement in the war on drugs-the military brass hasn't shown
much enthusiasm for a law enforcement role. But in the climate
of fear that has gripped the country since September 2001, and
particularly if (or when) there is another terrorist incident,
the beachhead that American troops have set up domestically could
easily become the base for a significant expansion of the military's
role at home.
Robert Dreyfuss is a contributing editor
of The Nation Research support was provided by the Investigative
Fund of the Nation Institute.
Civil Liberties watch