Posse Comitatus, We Hardly Knew Ye

| Tue Dec. 5, 2006 4:07 AM EST

Just when we got done digesting news that federal detention has turned alleged enemy combatant Jose Padilla into "a piece of furniture" comes CQ's Jeff Stein with a report that tucked into this year's defense authorization bill (aka the John W. Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2006, signed into law October 17) is a tidbit that on its face "seems to be about giving the federal government a far stronger hand in coordinating responses to Katrina-like disasters.

But on closer inspection, its language also alters the two-centuries-old Insurrection Act, which Congress passed in 1807 to limit the president's power to deploy troops within the United States.

Now before you think we (or CQ) are going all black-helicopter on you, rest assured that this is not about the federal government marching jack-booted thugs into your living room... we think. It's just that the law adds

"natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident" to the list of conditions permitting the President to take over local authority — particularly "if domestic violence has occurred to such an extent that the constituted authorities of the State or possession are incapable of maintaining public order."

Since the administration broadened what constitutes "conspiracy" in its definition of enemy combatants — anyone who "has purposely and materially supported hostilities against the United States," in the language of the Military Commissions Act (PL 109-366) — critics say it's a formula for executive branch mischief.

Oh yeah, the critics. Turns out that the indefatigable Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont is among the vanishingly small number of people who have even been paying attention, warning that "using the military for law enforcement goes against one of the founding tenets of our democracy." Oh, that.

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