Bush Eyes Bigger Military Role in Disasters
White House says debate raises 'a lot of issues to address'
September 27, 2005
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said he wants to make it easier for the military to take charge after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, but the White House acknowledged Monday the proposal raises "a lot of issues" that need resolution.
Photo: President George W. Bush stands with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, as he speaks to the media from the Rose Garden of the White House regarding the devastation along the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina. (White House photo by Paul Morse)
Critics argue that putting active-duty troops on American streets would violate a long-standing tradition that keeps the military out of domestic law enforcement.
But Bush said he wanted to improve the federal response to a "catastrophic" event like Katrina, which left more than 1,000 people dead after it struck last month.
"I want there to be a robust discussion about the best way for the federal government, in certain extreme circumstances, to be able to rally assets for the good of the people," he said.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 bans the armed forces from participating in police-type activity on U.S. soil.
Gene Healy, a senior editor at the conservative Cato Institute, said Bush risks undermining "a fundamental principle of American law" by tinkering with the Posse Comitatus Act.
Healy said the act 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."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, told The Associated Press he would not favor expanding the federal government's disaster response role.
"I don't want the federal government to take over disaster response, believe me," DeLay told the AP. "Why? Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy."
Bush first raised the issue September 15, in his speech from hurricane-battered New Orleans, and mentioned it again Sunday during a briefing on Hurricane Rita at U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado.
People watched as National Guard troops moved about the area outside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans Friday.
"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 he asked military leaders. "That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."
The administration's response to Katrina, which struck near the Louisiana-Mississippi state line August 29, was widely criticized by state and local officials and some residents of the affected areas.
Bush and other federal officials argued that no one could have foreseen the failure of New Orleans' protective levees, though previous disaster drills had included that scenario.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown said he was unaware that thousands of people were stranded without food or water at the city's downtown convention center until September 1.
Regular Army troops led by Lt. Gen. Russel Honore arrived in New Orleans on September 2, beginning to provide food and water, evacuating those still stranded at the Superdome and the convention center and providing a show of force to deter looters.
Brown was replaced as the director of the federal response effort less than two weeks after the storm hit, and he resigned September 12.
On September 13, Bush said Katrina "exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."
On Monday, Brown told congressional investigators that he wished he had pushed more forcefully and earlier for federal troops to be brought in to restore order in New Orleans, according to a senior official familiar with the meeting.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush "wants to make sure that we learn the lessons from Hurricane Katrina," including the use of the military in "a severe, catastrophic-type event."
"The Department of Defense would assume the responsibility for the situation, and come in with an overwhelming amount of resources and assets, to help stabilize the situation," McClellan said. "And, certainly, we need support from state and local authorities and other federal agencies, as well."
McClellan said Bush has discussed the idea with top officers at Northern Command, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and with "some state officials."
"There are a lot of issues to address," he said. "There are legal issues involved. You have to look at what the current law is."
Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, said Sunday he was "very supportive" of giving the military a lead role in response to major disasters.
"After Katrina, the moment we began to turn the corner was the moment we had thousands and thousands of uniforms and boots on the ground," he told CNN.
Vitter's Democratic counterpart, Sen. Mary Landrieu, said the military "has a key role to play" but was more cautious about diminishing local and state control.
"I'm not sure the governors association or all the mayors in America would be willing to sort of step aside," she said.
Copyright 2005 CNN.