Military May Augment Border Patrol

Under pressure from Congress and border state governors, the Pentagon is reviewing options for augmenting the Border Patrol as a surge force.

The Pentagon is looking at ways the military can help provide more security along the U.S. southern border, defense officials said Thursday, once again drawing the nation’s armed forces into a politically sensitive domestic role.

Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, asked officials this week to come up with options for the use of military resources and troops — particularly the National Guard — along the border with Mexico, according to defense officials familiar with the discussions. The officials, who requested anonymity because the matter has not been made public, said there are no details yet on a defense strategy.


Defense officials said they have been asked to map out what military resources could be made available if needed — including options for using the National Guard under either state or federal control. The strategy would also explore the legal guidelines for use of the military on domestic soil, the officials said.

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, the House voted 252-171 to allow Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to assign military personnel under certain circumstances to help the Homeland Security Department with border security. The House added the provision to a larger military measure.


In the aftermath of the hurricane, Bush asked Pentagon officials to review ways to give the military a bigger role in responding to major disasters. But officials are somewhat reluctant to make major changes, leery of the image of armed military troops patrolling U.S. cities. Under the Civil War-era Posse Comitatus Act, federal troops are prohibited from performing law enforcement actions, such as making arrests, seizing property or searching people. In extreme cases, however, the president can invoke the Insurrection Act, also from the Civil War, which allows him to use active-duty or National Guard troops for law enforcement.

It is a bedrock principle of American politics that the military does not get involved in domestic policing under any but the gravest of conditions. Peacetime standing armies were anathema until necessitated by the enduring Cold War. We even have a provision in the Bill of Rights precluding quartering of troops in private homes.

This reluctance to politicize the military stems from the abuses seen in Europe and domestically during the Colonial era and has been reinforced time and again by observation of the developing world, where professional militaries are the only trusted institution and not infrequently assume the reins of power.

Short of an armed invasion from Mexico, it is simply bizarre to consider militarizing the border.

Update: Bryan at Hot Air is excited.

Update: AP is reporting that President Bush is weighing this very seriously.

President Bush, trying to build momentum for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, is considering plans to shore up the Mexican border with National Guard troops paid for by the federal government, according to senior administration officials. One defense official said military leaders believe the number of troops required could range from 3,500 to 10,000, depending on the final plan. Another administration official cautioned that the 10,000 figure was too high. The officials insisted on anonymity since no decision has been announced.

The president was expected to reveal his plans in an address Monday at 8 p.m. EDT. It will be the first time he has used the Oval Office for a domestic policy speech — a gesture intended to underscore the importance he places on the divisive immigration issue.

More from NYT:

Mr. Bush will speak from the Oval Office beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern time [Monday] and is expected to propose new enforcement measures along the United States’ border with Mexico, including the use of additional troops. The White House spokesman, Tony Snow, said the president would speak for about 20 minutes, and that television networks had been asked to carry the speech live. “This is crunch time,” Mr. Snow told reporters this morning.

National Guard troops have been deployed by border-state governors from time to time, in communications roles, fence-repair work and anti-drug enforcement as well as border surveillance. Guard troops are normally under state control, although they can be put under federal control in emergencies.

This saddens me, though I understand the politics. In this case, I believe Bush’s policy inclinations are right on the money but public opinion is pushing strongly in the other direction. In the Dubai Ports deal, where he was also right and kneejerk public opinion wrong, the situation took care of itself. Here, he’s apparently willing to capitulate to public pressure given his low poll ratings and thus lack of “political capital.” Presidents in trouble do that. Think Nixon and wage and price controls, which he knew were idiotic and against all laws of economics.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    I would argue that this is not so much ‘domestic policing’ (of U.S. citizens) by the military as it is about preventing non-citizens from ‘invading’.

    Still, this is a garbage mission for the Guard. What is the duration of this- forever? The Guard is called up to respond in times of national emergency, not to serve as full time border patrol agents.

  2. LJD:

    While the mission would be on an international border and aimed at foreign nationals, it seems to me that this quite clearly a domestic mission. Specially the goal would be to enforce immigrations laws–and that would seem to me to contravene the Posse Comitatus Act.

    Further, this isn’t exactly what the military is trained to do.

    And you are quite correct about the Guard.

  3. Michael A says:

    The article mentions Posse Comitatus and paraphrases some of the very short statute (51 words). However the author leaves out any mention of nearly one third of the content: “except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress”

    It appears that just such an Act of Congress is in the works…

  4. Robo says:

    Short of an armed invasion from Mexico, it is simply bizarre to consider militarizing the border.

    If we are going to militarize any border, it should be the northern border, since the new Prime Minister campaigned on a platform that calls for massive spending and military build-up of the Canadian army.

    Also, given the fact that Bush caved to Canadaian interests in the softwood lumber deal, gives Harper confidence that he can get his way with the US.

    It would not be unreasonable for Harper to start extorting the US on natural gas next.

    It is pretty troubling when Bush fails to defend US interests diplomatically in cases like Canada–or even worse the India nuclear deal which basically requires no concessions from India. If our allies are pushing us around diplomatically, it is probably unlikely that Bush would have the guts to defend us militarily, but we can only hope.

  5. McGehee says:

    While the mission would be on an international border and aimed at foreign nationals, it seems to me that this quite clearly a domestic mission.

    It wouldn’t be the first time the military has conducted “domestic missions” according to this definition. 1812. The Civil War. The Indian wars.

    Hell, the Revolution.

  6. LJD says:

    Further, this isnâ??t exactly what the military is trained to do.

    Armed security, patrols, reconaissance, capture and processing of ‘detainees’. What part of this is the miiltary not trained to do? You must not have been watching most of our work since we got on the U.N. bandwagon.

    While it is a domestic mission, I think one can argue that no troops will be quartered, and it is unlikely that U.S. citizens will be searched or detained. On the contrary, it is precisely the interests of the U.S. citizen that they are charged with protecting.

    If our allies are pushing us around diplomatically, it is probably unlikely that Bush would have the guts to defend us militarily, but we can only hope.

    You’re kidding, right? You want the President to bomb Canada over economics?

  7. legion says:

    Armed security, patrols, reconaissance, capture and processing of ‘detainees’. What part of this is the miiltary not trained to do?

    I would substitute ‘intended’ for ‘trained’. The primary mission of the armed forces is direct combat with enemies of the US, and there’s precious little chance of that on border patrol duty – at least to any level beyond what any ordinary police force should be capable of handling.

    There is exactly one reason why the military is such an attractive tool to use on the borders: manpower. They have a lot of warm bodies that are trained for stressful situations. But the fact that they _could_ do this job doesn’t mean they _should_.

  8. Robo says:

    You�re kidding, right? You want the President to bomb Canada over economics?

    I am less concern with his failure to defend our economic interests in the softwood lumber case as I am with India.

    He gave up nothing in the India deal and actually paved the way for a Russian/Indian nuclear partnership that will likely fuel the nuclear arms buildup in Asia, futher destablilizing a sensitive area of the world. US strategic interests are actually compromised by the deal–due mainly to his failure to understand the situation and to recognize that India’s nuclear expansion is inimical to US interests in the region.

  9. LJD says:

    You do understand that:

    a.) India already possesses nuclear weapons.

    b.) The intent is to help India with nuclear power to alleviate their reliance on foreign oil sources, thereby also relieving some pressure on a resource that we seem to not be able to break away from.

    c.) To support the growing indian economy and cultivate trade with a country we already import a great deal of goods from.

    I still don’t see the connection between being ‘pushed around’ economically and being unwilling to defend our country from outright hostility.

    Legion- I’m not sure how long you have been out, but that is no longer the case. The military TRAINS for war- absolutely. But the preponderance of missions- real world training- is in police work. Look at Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan. Very little force on force fighting. Lots and lots of force protection, information gathering, dealing with civilians, etc.

  10. Bill Faith says:

    Former Combat Engineer George “Rurik” Mellinger sent me an excellent essay recently on what needs to be one on our southern border: What To Do – Part I – The Wall. He and I — and a lot of other Vietnam, and younger, vets if I’m not mistaken — tend to be well to the right of El Presidente on the border issue but I think we’re right in line with a lot more people than Jorge realizes. Since I didn’t write the essay I’m free to say I think it’s excellent and should be widely read — Click here.

  11. Bill Faith says:

    Did I forget to mention that I’m strongly in favor of putting as much military power as it takes on our border with Mexico?

  12. Steve Verdon says:


    All your examples preceed the Posse Comitatus Act…so they strike me as irrelevant. Also, it basically requires an act of Congress or must be spelled out in the Constitution. So the war of 1812 for example might have automatic exemption since it would be a war on U.S. soil.


    Using the military to enforce laws inside the U.S. borders is illegal as per the Posse Comitatus Act.

    Sec. 1385. – Use of Army and Air Force as posse comitatus

    Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

    It mentions nothing about searching U.S. citizens or quartering soldiers.

    Of course, if Congress says to put the National Guard on the border and have them stop illegals, then it would appear that it would not violate the Posse Comitatus Act.

  13. floyd says:

    so an unarmed invasion,with the same intent or result as an armed invasion should not be resisted?

  14. legion says:

    Oh, I’m well aware of what the military is being trained to do, and has been used for since… (ugh. it’s late, and I’m pooped) since.. Reagan and the Marines in Lebanon strikes me as the earliest post-Vietnam police actions…

    My argument is more that it’s not what the military ought to be used for, at least if we’re supposed to take the GWOT seriously as a ‘war’. We could get away with using the military as globo-cops in the 80s and 90s, but regardless of your opinions on Iraq and the GWOT, I think you’ll agree that Iraq ain’t no police action/peacekeeping mission…

  15. deona says:

    So. If Russia were invited to headquarter in Cuba, sent 100â??s of thousands of troop, shipped them into Mexico, and, from there, attempted an invasion at various places across our southern border, you donâ??t think it would be â??appropriateâ?? to respond with U.S. Military?

    Comments about the civil war period apply to using our military to police our own citizens!!! Is one to assume that anybody who crosses our southern border is, by definition, already a citizen?

    Protection of our border from invasion is the original and most basic reason for a nation to HAVE a military!!