Battle brews over a bigger military role

The Pentagon tilts toward taking more authority in major disasters - worrying governors, lawmakers.

The lessons learned from hurricane Katrina appear to be putting the Pentagon on a collision course with governors and lawmakers worried about the expanding role of the military in disaster response.

Gaining currency at the highest levels of the Pentagon is the idea that during a catastrophic event - either natural or terrorist - the Department of Defense should replace the Department of Homeland Security as the agency in charge of the federal response.

In many ways, the notion is limited, affecting only how the federal government deploys its own resources. Yet in a nation founded on a distrust of military control, any suggestion of giving the armed forces greater authority on American soil faces centuries-old skepticism. Moreover, it comes at a time when governors are already feeling besieged by an administration that, they feel, is too eager to wrest power from them.

"Most members of Congress and nearly all governors have expressed the belief that in the context of a catastrophic event, the Department of Defense should be on tap but not on top," says Paul McHale, assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense. "The question is: How well can you do that?"

The emerging opinion at the Pentagon is that Katrina laid bare the limitations of the nation's current disaster-response plan. Officials are quick to note that the system works well for the 50-odd natural disasters that occur routinely every year: Governors make a request for assistance to the president, and the president then asks the Department of Homeland Security - which includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - to organize federal resources to help local officials.

The Pentagon's concern is with a disaster the magnitude of hurricane Katrina or greater, such as the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a major American city. Katrina showed that when local first responders are overwhelmed or incapacitated, the job of filling that gap falls to the military - not only states' National Guards, controlled by their governors, but also federal troops called in for rescue and humanitarian relief.

Yet during Katrina, the federal military remained under FEMA's control. It meant that the Defense Department, which had the resources to appraise the situation and prioritize its missions more quickly than could FEMA, actually drafted its own requests for assistance and sent them to FEMA, which copied them and sent them back to the Department of Defense for action, says Mr. McHale.

The bureaucratic contortions allowed the Pentagon to move more quickly, but they suggested what now seems obvious to defense officials: In catastrophic disasters, where the Defense Department will bring the most resources to bear, it should marshal the federal response - at least at first.

Yet the mere mention of the Defense Department taking a leading role in disaster response is enough to send governors and civil libertarians scurrying for tar and feathers. "We've had it up to our ears with the federal government telling us, 'We can do a better job than you,' " says Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D).

Like most governors, he has not heard of the new ideas circulating through the Pentagon. Indeed, Secretary McHale says the Pentagon itself has not finished its "due diligence" review of how to apply the lessons learned from Katrina. Yet Governor Schweitzer and others are wary of any attempt by the federal government to meddle in local affairs - especially with armed forces. The perception of an overbearing Bush administration has only added to fears that this is a veiled power grab.

"They take the Guard and its equipment away from us [to send to Iraq], and they say, 'See, you weren't ready to respond,' " he says. "If [the federal military] want to come and help us in an emergency, that's fine. But in no way is it a good idea to decrease the authority or the effectiveness of the National Guard."

As a witness in congressional hearings, McHale tried to disabuse lawmakers of the notion that the Pentagon is seeking to come in, take over, and declare martial law after catastrophic events. At this early stage, it is true that many questions are unanswered, he says. Among them: How long would the military remain the lead federal agency? What would be the trigger for declaring a disaster "catastrophic"? Who would make that declaration and how?

But moving the Defense Department to the top of the federal food chain in responding to catastrophic events would not necessarily "federalize" the disaster response, overriding state authority and putting the federal government in control of the relief effort. Nor would it require diverting soldiers to disaster relief or changing Posse Comitatus, the law that prohibits active-duty troops from engaging in law enforcement.

Instead, McHale says, it is a shift in responsibility that would allow the Pentagon to move quickly and more decisively after a massive disaster: "The Department of Defense will be expected to have ... at least some enhanced authority to control and speed the deployment of [its] capabilities through some carefully defined assignment of leadership responsibility."

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