An Outbreak of Presidential Powers

Amidst continued, widespread criticism of FEMA’s foul-ups in response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush has announced that should an avian flu virus outbreak threaten the United States, he wants to use the military to quarantine citizens. Although currently there is no known strain of the avian flu transmissible between humans, should such a mutated strain arise the World Health Organization does recommend quarantine under certain conditions, in addition to the mass administration of drugs.

However, quarantine would not necessarily require investing the president with the power to use of the military on U.S. soil, which was restricted by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. CNN spoke with Gene Healy, of the conservative Cato Institute, who said:

Bush would risk undermining “a fundamental principle of American law” by tinkering with the act, which does not hinder the military’s ability to respond to a crisis.

“What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role,” he wrote in a commentary on the group’s Web site. “That reflects America’s traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that’s well-justified.”

Healy said soldiers are not trained as police officers, and putting them in a civilian law enforcement role “can result in serious collateral damage to American life and liberty.”