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Increased Domestic Role for US Military Worries Some

December 05, 2008 08:58 AM
by Christopher Coats
A little-noticed shift in military priorities is seeing expanded deployment of U.S. troops within the United States, potentially reversing centuries-old checks on executive power.
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The Army Times reports that on Oct. 1, the Army’s First Brigade, which consists of approximately 3,000 troops, began a yearlong deployment with domestic responsibilities; further plans call for a total of 20,000 troops to be deployed domestically by 2011.

The troops, based in Fort Stewart in Georgia and directed from a command center in Colorado Springs, Colo., are meant to aid local efforts in case of a national disaster or to help quell “civil unrest and crowd control.”

The domestic force is now “under the day-to-day control of U.S. Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command.”

Arguing that the troops are meant to supplement local efforts, such as police and National Guard, and not act as a police force, proponents of the move have dismissed worries about martial law or a police state as “civil liberties gone wild,” according to ABC News .

The move does appear, however, to undermine earlier rulings on presidential powers such as the Insurrection Act of 1807 and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1873, as they apply to deploying federal troops within the United States.

Both acts emerged from worries that federal troops deployed domestically might inappropriately serve political purposes.

The 1807 Act restricts the ability of the president to send forces into states except to “to suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy,” when a state invites them or is unable to protect civil rights or property.

Despite protests from governors worried about threats to states’ rights, this definition was expanded in 2006 to include terrorist attacks and natural disasters, among other qualifiers, as a part of the John Warner Defense Authorization Act.

Although a 2008 Congressional effort succeeded in reversing the new definition, a signing statement allowed President Bush to exempt his administration from any restrictions, according to the Center for American Progress.

This new definition resulted in the expanded role of federal troops within the United States and plans for a permanent force to replace the First Brigade after a year.

Opinion & Analysis: How Far Is Too Far?

Critics of the effort have been quick to question both the authority and effectiveness of the domestic troops.

“By definition, if the troops are operating in a civilian environment they’re going to find themselves policing, and that’s where you run into Posse Comitatus,” Homeland Security specialist Kyle Olson told ABC News.

Olson added that given the federal troops’ central location, local responders would always be more effective because of their proximity and familiarity of the crisis zone.

Although some critics, such as Naomi Wolf, have warned of the danger posed by expanded domestic military responsibilities  and potentially unchecked executive authority over the troops, others have urged calm.

Writing in Salon, Glen Greenwald suggested that while the troops’ new domestic role was cause for some concern, a single brigade was too small to cause any real worry, especially given the open announcements surrounding the deployments.

“There's no need to start manufacturing all sorts of scare scenarios about Bush canceling elections or the imminent declaration of martial law or anything of that sort,” he wrote shortly before the first deployment.

Historical Context: A Long Time Coming

In 2000, Maj. Craig T. Trebilcock, writing for the federally funded Homeland Security Institute, suggested that attempts to reduce the impact of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1873 have actually been going on for years.

Trebilcock argued that since the 1980s, presidents have sought to expand the role of federal troops for domestic purposes, most notably as acting components of the broader “War on Drugs. ”

He also notes that since the Act is not part of the Constitution, it is easier to develop legislation to circumvent it or reduce its power.

More recently, President Bush sought to reverse Posse Comitatus after Hurricane Katrina to allow federal troops into New Orleans.
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