Posse Comitatus Confusion

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 4:05 PM EDT

This doesn't seem like good news, from the Washington Times:

President Bush yesterday said he wants Congress to consider putting the Pentagon, not state and local agencies, in charge of responding to large natural disasters in the future….

That would require a change of law, since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 forbids the military from performing civilian law enforcement duties. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is investigating possible reforms to the act, which Pentagon officials consider archaic. …

[C]ritics are already warning against repeal of Posse Comitatus. "Washington seems poised to embrace further centralization and militarization at home," cautioned Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "That has the makings of a policy disaster that would dwarf Hurricane Katrina."

The main thing of it is, none of this is necessary. As William Arkin reports, Pentagon documents make it perfectly clear that the military already "can provide support to civil authorities, and even act as a lead agency in the face of a breakdown of civil command and control…. in accordance with the National Response Plan and current law." The swift military response to Hurricane Rita proves that, with a decent amount of preparation, the Defense Department has the ability natural disasters on the homeland.

Basically, the Washington Times gets it wrong, the Posse Comitatus Act doesn't really restrict what the military can do in the event of a breakdown of local and state authority, it mainly just subordinates the military to civilian control. Nor does it tie the president's hands. So either Bush isn't planning to propose anything new here, and mainly just wants to shift blame for the response to Katrina away from his administration and towards state and local governments—in other words, this is all for show—or else he's proposing to do something that is entirely unnecessary and really, really unwise. Say it again: Katrina was a catastrophe because Bush screwed up, not because the military lacked operational flexibility in the homeland.

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