Increased Pentagon role in U.S. domestic security

Published 2 December 2008

The U.S. Department of Defense will have an increased role in domestic U.S. security; a Pentagon plan calls for up to 20,000 uniformed troops inside the United States by 2011 trained to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear terrorist attack or other domestic catastrophe

The U.S. military to have 20,000 uniformed troops inside the United States by 2011 trained to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear terrorist attack or other domestic catastrophe, according to Pentagon officials. Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu and Ann Scott Tyson report that the long-planned shift in the homeland security role of the Department of Defense was recently backed with funding and troop commitments after years of prodding by Congress and outside experts, defense analysts said.

Critics of the plan — in the military and among civil liberties groups and libertarians — have expressed concern that the new homeland emphasis threatens to strain the military and possibly undermine the Posse Comitatus Act, a 130-year-old federal law restricting the military’s role in domestic law enforcement.

Hsu and Tyson write that the Pentagon’s plan calls for three rapid-reaction forces to be ready for emergency response by September 2011. The first 4,700-person unit, built around an active-duty combat brigade based at Fort Stewart, Georgia, was available as of 1 October, said Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., commander of the U.S. Northern Command. More funding would allow two additional teams to join nearly eighty smaller National Guard and reserve units made up of about 6,000 troops in supporting local and state officials nationwide. All would be trained to respond to a domestic chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive attack.

A brief history:

  • Military preparations for a domestic weapon-of-mass-destruction attack have been underway since at least 1996, when the Marine Corps activated a 350-member chemical and biological incident response force and later based it in Indian Head, Maryland.
  • These efforts accelerated after 9/11, and at the time Iraq was invaded in 2003, a Pentagon joint task force drew on 3,000 civil support personnel across the United States.
  • In 2005 a new Pentagon homeland defense strategy emphasized “preparing for multiple, simultaneous mass casualty incidents.” Hsu and Tyson quote Paul McHale, assistant defense secretary for homeland defense, to say that national security threats were not limited to adversaries who seek to grind down U.S. combat forces abroad, but also include those who “want to inflict such brutality on our society that we give up the fight,” such as by detonating a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city.
  • In late 2007 Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England signed a directive approving more than $556 million over five years to set up the three response teams, known as CBRNE Consequence Management Response Forces. Planners assume an incident could lead to thousands of casualties, more than 1 million evacuees, and contamination of as many as 3,000 square miles, about the scope of damage Hurricane Katrina caused in 2005.
  • Last month, McHale said, authorities agreed to begin a $1.8 million pilot project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through which civilian authorities in five states could tap military planners to develop disaster response plans. Hawaii, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Washington and West Virginia will each focus on a particular threat — pandemic flu, a terrorist attack, hurricane, earthquake, and catastrophic chemical release, respectively — speeding up federal and state emergency planning begun in 2003.