Should Disaster Relief be Run by Military?
President Bush yesterday called on Congress to make the Defense Department, not FEMA, the lead agency in emergency response in the event of major natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
Bush Urges Shift In Relief Responsibilities (WaPo, A12)
On Sunday, President Bush called on Congress to consider a larger role for U.S. armed forces in responding to natural disasters, as he completed what White House aides called a weekend “fact-finding” mission to determine whether the Pentagon needs more control. “Clearly, in the case of a terrorist attack, that would be the case, but is there a natural disaster — of a certain size — that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?” Bush said after a briefing from military leaders at Randolph Air Force Base here. “That’s going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about.”
Bush has told aides that one of the major breakdowns in the Hurricane Katrina response was the federal government’s inability to seize control of rescue and relief efforts. Under existing law and procedure, a state governor is in charge when natural disasters strike and is responsible for deploying the National Guard, though in certain cases, the president can order troops to support local law enforcement.
Bush is asking Congress to consider a major change, potentially shifting federal responsibility for major natural disasters from the Department of Homeland Security to the nation’s top military generals. The Defense Department has been hesitant to take such a role because of sensitivity to the idea of adopting a police presence on U.S. soil and because of strains on the armed forces from the war in Iraq.
The current National Response Plan developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks gives the defense secretary authority to provide military support for disaster relief efforts at the president’s direction. However, active-duty troops generally cannot take on domestic law enforcement roles, which is what many experts said was desperately needed to stop the rioting and violence in the streets of New Orleans after Katrina hit. National Guard troops under state control are allowed to take on law enforcement responsibilities.
Bush’s plan is getting hammered on both ends, with critics ranging from the Cato Institute to Jimmy Carter.
Let GIs Run Storm Relief? (AJC, p. 1) [Cox syndicate]
[…] Such a change could require revision of an 1878 federal act that bans the use of the military for law enforcement.
Military expert Gene Healy of the Cato Institute, in an analysis published Sunday, warned against tinkering with that law. “Having already wrecked a legendary American city, Hurricane Katrina may now be invoked to undermine a fundamental principle of American law,” Healy wrote, concluding that “when it comes to domestic policing, the military should be a last resort, not a first responder.”
In addition to shifting authority away from local officials, the change contemplated by Bush would take power away from the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA was established in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter after the National Governors Association asked for an entity to streamline state-federal links during emergencies. At the time, 16 major agencies were folded into FEMA. In March 2003, FEMA itself was folded into the Department of Homeland Security.
On “CNN Live Today” on Wednesday, Carter said the agency’s diminished role under Homeland Security led to its recent failures. “I made three promises. One was that the leaders of FEMA would always be highly qualified in handling a disaster. The second promise I made was that FEMA would always be an independent agency, and would not be part of another larger agency. And the third promise I made was that FEMA would always be adequately financed. Well, as you know, all three of those promises have been violated.”
Healy’s argument about the implications of politicizing the armed forces by inserting them into domestic law enforcement functions is well taken. Moreover, the military trains for a warfighting mission. As much as overseas “nation building” missions undermines that primary focus, it is sometimes a necessary adjunct to achieving the political objectives for which wars are fought. Having the military focus on domestic relief operations, though, would be much more burdensome because mission creep would be unstoppable once the genie was out of the bottle.
He expands in an article at Cato’s website entitled, “Domestic Militarization: A Disaster in the Making.” A brief excerpt:
The Posse Comitatus Act is no barrier to federal troops providing logistical support during natural disasters. Nor does it prohibit the president from using the army to restore order in extraordinary circumstances–even over the objection of a state governor. What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role. That reflects America’s traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that’s well-justified.
There are very good reasons to resist any push toward domestic militarization. As one federal court has explained, “military personnel must be trained to operate under circumstances where the protection of constitutional freedoms cannot receive the consideration needed in order to assure their preservation. The Posse Comitatus statute is intended to meet that danger.” Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, commander of the federal troops helping out in New Orleans, seemed to recognize that danger when he ordered his soldiers to keep their guns pointed down: “This isnÃ¢€™t Iraq,” he growled.
Soldiers are trained to be warriors, not peace officers–which is as it should be. But putting full-time warriors into a civilian policing situation can result in serious collateral damage to American life and liberty.
Furthermore, as painful as it is to agree with Carter on much of anything, he’s right. FEMA needs to be treated much the same as NASA, the FDA, and the Federal Reserve Board are. We’d never think of putting amateurs with little substantive expertise in those positions; given the high cost of failure at FEMA, we can’t do it there, either. During natural disasters, FEMA should be the lead agency; it should only be subordinate to Homeland Security during terrorist attacks and the like.
FEMA is and should remain a coordinating body. The military, especially the National Guard, will of course have to be utilized because it alone has the massive manpower and lift resources to get parts of the relief mission done quickly. But its role should always be ancilliary for domestic matters unless there is an enemy attack.