Delicate task of rallying public about threat of terrorism

Pentagon worries about biological attacks, but many Americans are waryof bigger military role in civilian life.

As he steps up efforts to thwart biological and chemical terrorism, President Clinton has asked the military to study ways to help local authorities cope with the potentially catastrophic consequences of such attacks.

But in drafting a plan to present to Mr. Clinton for his approval this summer, Pentagon officials are aware it will also have to pass rigorous scrutiny in another critical quarter: the American public.

Winning popular support for what will essentially be an expanded home-front role for the military may not be easy.

On one hand, defense officials know the military is the only part of the federal government with the expertise and resources to handle chemical and biological warfare. On the other, these officials need no reminders of Americans' deep aversion to the military's involvement in domestic law enforcement and the nation's historic antipathy to anything smacking of overweening centralized power.

"We are not seeking to become involved in this," insists Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre. "But we have been asked to be involved because we are the only part of the government that has the resources that can be mobilized."

The Pentagon's challenge, experts say, will be convincing a majority of Americans, now enjoying the security of being the world's sole superpower, that the threat of chemical and biological terrorism warrants a bigger role for the armed forces.

While there is a widespread perception that terrorism is a danger, there is also "a majority sentiment that the Pentagon tends to cook things up and exaggerate the threat," says Steve Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes. "Some people might believe that they are trying to scare them to justify an increase in the defense budget."

Civil libertarians charge that civil liberties have already been eroded by antiterrorism laws pushed by Clinton since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Among other measures, they cite changes to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which limits the military's use in law enforcement. The changes allow the Pentagon to assist in investigations of chemical and biological terrorism.

For them, the plan being drafted by the Pentagon is another step in the wrong direction. "The best way to convince the public that the military isn't crossing the line into civilian law enforcement is to draw the line darker and heavier, not to blur it as the administration proposes yet again," says Greg Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington.

One major problem, Mr. Nojeim says, is that military training is not conducive to dealing with civilian police matters. "Killing is what soldiers are trained to do," he says.

Defense officials and some experts also worry about the reaction of far-right groups. These groups, such as survivalists, radical militias, and millennial extremists, could see the new plan as fresh proof of a federal conspiracy to seize local power and incorporate the country into a "one-world government."

"That is the fear of the radical right in this country, a fear of the federal government acting as the spearhead of some massive global conspiracy," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Birmingham, Ala., group that monitors right-wing extremism. "This will just add the Pentagon to an already extremely long list of enemies."

Defense officials doubt they will be able to assuage diehards on the left or the right. "There is a lot of frenzy out there," says a senior Pentagon official. "Already people are beginning to look at this issue through the filter of their biases."

But he and other officials believe they can persuade a majority of Americans that the military is uniquely placed to help local officials avoid being overwhelmed by the horrific consequences of chemical and biological terrorism.

THE military, particularly the National Guard, has a long history of assisting in major emergencies, such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, they point out. And just as in those circumstances, they add, any troops responding to chemical or biological terrorism will always be under the control of civilian authorities.

They also believe that the threat to civil liberties might be worse if the military failed to devise a response now and was mobilized without clear limits on its responsibilities and concrete lines of civilian command.

"We do not want to be in a posture where the only thing which you can do at that time is turn it into martial law because we haven't done the process of ... working out those standing arrangements with the FBI and working it out with local civil defense people and emergency preparedness people," the senior Pentagon official says. "If none of that takes place ... that is far more likely to lead to an unacceptable role for the military in our society."

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