U.S. mulls using military domestically

Scott Lindlaw, WASHINGTON, AP

Homeland security chief Tom Ridge says the threat of terrorism may force government planners to consider using the military for domestic law enforcement, now largely prohibited by federal law.

President George W. Bush has called on Congress to thoroughly review the law that bans the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines from participating in arrests, searches, seizure of evidence and other police-type activity on U.S. soil. The Coast Guard and National Guard troops under the control of state governors are excluded from the post Civil War Reconstruction-era law, known as the “Posse Comitatus Act.”

Translating as the “county posse” act, it empowered local sheriffs to deputize citizens to apprehend criminals, keeping that power on the local level rather than having U.S. federal troops involve themselves in domestic law enforcement.

Ridge said Sunday that it “goes against our instincts as a country to empower the military with the ability to arrest,” and called the prospect “very unlikely.”

But he said the government is wise to examine the law.

“We need to be talking about military assets, in anticipation of a crisis event,” Ridge said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And clearly, if you’re talking about using the military, then you should have a discussion about posse comitatus.”

Two influential Democratic senators agreed with Bush and Ridge that the law ought to be reviewed, but expressed no interest in granting the military new powers to arrest American citizens.

Sen. Carl Levin, chairman Senate Armed Services Committee, said posse comitatus “has served us well for a long time.”

“It’s kept the military out of law enforcement, out of arresting people except in the most unusual emergency situations like a riot or after some kind of a disaster where they have to protect against looting,” Levin said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

However, he said: “I don’t fear looking at it to see whether or not our military can be more helpful in a very supportive and assisting role even than they have been up to now — providing equipment, providing training, those kind of things which do not involve arresting people.”

Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he favors expanding the military’s role in responding to major catastrophes such as an attack by a weapon of mass destruction.

The law “has to be amended, but we’re not talking about general police power,” Biden said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, who heads the new military command charged with defending American territory, told The New York Times he favors changing the law to grant greater domestic powers to the military to protect against terror attacks. He offered no specific changes he favored.

Congress is racing to approve legislation by the end of its session this fall that would make Bush’s proposed Department of Homeland Security a reality.

In the Senate, a version of the measure by Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, also a Democrat, tracks closely with Bush’s plan. It also would augment the agency’s ability to gather and analyze intelligence from the FBI, CIA and others.

That bill is to be considered by the Senate committee Wednesday.