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When Disaster Strikes, Why Not Bring in the Troops?


Congress is scheduled to hold hearings this week on the role of the military in national emergencies. A 19th-century law called posse comitatus generally forbids the American military to act as law enforcement within the United States. President Bush has suggested a broader role for the armed forces during a disaster like Hurricane Katrina or to enforce quarantine in case of a flu pandemic. Commentator Michael O'Hanlon of The Brookings Institution says the military is sometimes in a position to provide the most help.


When a major national catastrophe puts many lives at acute risk, the president should be empowered to use any part of the military in response operations, including law enforcement. Without pointing fingers, the military response to Hurricane Katrina was too slow. It's simply unacceptable to have a four-day delay between a major storm that puts thousands of lives at serious risk, and when the military shows up to help. We have to do better next time.

The Defense Department is reviewing plans to use existing military assets, including active forces, when disaster strikes. Now we need to legally empower our political leaders to use those forces. This is not a call to federalize most disaster response. The US military, as well as most of the nation's governors, rightly oppose any such step. There's no reason to favor active-duty forces over the National Guard, when all else is equal, and there's no reason to call on either one when local first responders can do the job. But if a disaster is massive and local solutions are lacking, we shouldn't rule out other options.

It's true that the 1876 posse comitatus law prohibits federal troops from carrying out law enforcement operations. But it was written 130 years ago to prevent former Union soldiers from mistreating former Confederates. Times have changed. There are already exceptions to posse comitatus. It can be suspended in the event of insurrection, crimes involving nuclear materials and emergencies involving chemical or biological threats. We need one more exemption now for major national catastrophes, things like massive hurricanes or earthquakes, or flu outbreaks that require quarantines, or devastating terrorist attacks.

Some people fear giving Washington too much power. The posse comitatus doesn't limit the power of governors to command National Guard forces. Why do we fear the power of the president more than that of the nation's governors? And any president who abused this power over American citizens would suffer enormously, including the threat of impeachment. The Uniform Code of Military Justice would continue to hold our troops accountable for their actions. They would not be above the law. In fact, it would be possible to write the exemption to posse comitatus to hold troops accountable in civilian courts for any misdeeds committed against their fellow citizens. And special procedures could also be written into law giving Congress the power to immediately review the president's exemption of posse comitatus.

Presidents would still have to decide case by case when to federalize the response to a disaster, and most of the time by far they would not do so. But in the event of massive catastrophe, we would have military options to save lives, options that we tragically did not employ in response to Katrina.

INSKEEP: That's commentary from Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Tomorrow we will hear another perspective on what the military's role should be during a national disaster.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael O'Hanlon