Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Leahy Concerned About NorthCom’s New Army Unit

by Matthew Rothschild

Senator Patrick Leahy is concerned about the Pentagon's decision to designate an Army unit to Northern Command.

On October 1, the Pentagon, for the first time ever, dedicated an Army force specifically to NorthCom, which is in charge of securing not some foreign region but the United States of America.

The unit it assigned is the 3rd Infantry, First Brigade Combat Team, which has spent three of the last five years in Iraq. It was one of the first units to get to Baghdad, and it was active in retaking and patrolling Fallujah. One of its specialties is counterinsurgency.

This marks a change for NorthCom, which was established on October 1, 2002. Its website still says it "has few permanently assigned forces," and that "the command is assigned forces whenever necessary to execute missions, as ordered by the President and the Secretary of Defense."

Leahy "asked for a briefing from his staff" on this development and "wants to monitor the situation," an aide to Leahy said.

Leahy was instrumental in getting Congress to repeal the "Insurrection Act Rider" in the 2006 defense appropriations bill. That rider had given the President sweeping power to use military troops in ways contrary to the Insurrection Act and Posse Comitatus Act. The rider authorized the President to have troops patrol our streets in response to disasters, epidemics, and any "condition" he might cite.

Leahy said last December that this rider "made it easier for the President to take over the Guard and to declare martial law." In a Senate statement on April 24, 2007, he cautioned against inserting the military "into domestic situations." As he put it: "One of the distinguishing characteristics of the United States is that we do not use the military to patrol our communities and neighborhoods." A few months before that, he warned that we must ensure that "the military is not used in a way that offends and endangers some of our most cherished values and liberties."

The repeal of the rider was signed by Bush on January 28, though Amy Goodman reports that "Bush attached a signing statement that he did not feel bound by the repeal."

The roles the 1st Brigade Combat Team will take on at NorthCom are a bit unclear.

"They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control," said the Army Times when it first reported on it. These duties would be in addition to dealing with "potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack."

Soldiers in the unit "also will learn how to use ‘the first ever nonlethal package that the Army has field,' 1st BCT commander Col. Roger Cloutier said, referring to crowd and traffic control equipment and nonlethal weapons designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals without killing them," the article noted.

Cloutier even bragged to the Army Times: "I was the first guy in the brigade to get Tasered."

The Army Times has since issued a correction, stating that the "non-lethal crowd control package" is "intended for use on deployments to the war zone, not in the U.S."

NorthCom's own press release of September 30 says, "This response force will not be called upon to help with law enforcement, civil disturbance, or crowd control."

The unit will have its regular weapons, however. It will store other weapons in "containers," and will have access to tanks, as Amy Goodman has reported and the Pentagon has confirmed.

The Army is taking a strong interest in this deployment.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey personally observed the combat team's training exercise, entitled "Vibrant Response," which was held at Fort Stewart, Georgia, last month. According to NorthCom's public affairs department, Gen. Casey "pointed out that being part of the new force requires a shift in thinking for soldiers who are accustomed to taking charge."

One soldier in the exercise said he learned that the troops should "preposition containers and equipment."

NorthCom's website, in a section on frequently asked questions about Joint Task Forces-Civil Support, cites "DoD Directive 3025.1" as laying out the criteria for how the Pentagon will respond in domestic situations.

That directive talks about "military support in dealing with the actual or anticipated consequences of civil emergencies." Those civil emergencies could be "arising during peace, war, or transition to war."

While it states that such support "does not include military support to local law enforcement," there is a provision in the directive for the military to take over functions of the civilian government.

Military personnel "shall not perform any function of civil government unless absolutely necessary on a temporary basis under conditions of Immediate Response. Any commander who is directed, or undertakes, to perform such functions shall facilitate the reestablishment of civil responsibility at the earliest possible time," the document states.

Under this "Immediate Response" exception, local military commanders can even act without prior approval from their superiors. "Imminently serious conditions resulting from any civil emergency or attack may require immediate action by military commanders, or by responsible officials of other DoD agencies, to save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate great property damage," it says. "When such conditions exist and time does not permit prior approval from higher headquarters, local military commanders and responsible officials of other DoD Components are authorized by this Directive, subject to any supplemental direction that may be provide by their DoD Component, to take necessary action to respond to requests of civil authorities."

The Pentagon's decision to dedicate the First Brigade Combat Team to NorthCom has raised alarms, especially in the context of the current economic crisis. In Bush's National Security Presidential Directive 51, he lays out his authority in the event of a catastrophic emergency. In such an emergency, "the President shall lead the activities of the Federal Government for ensuring constitutional government" and will coordinate with state, local, and tribal governments, along with private sector owners of infrastructure.

NSPD 51 defines a catastrophic emergency as "any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government function."

Notice the use of the word "or" above. In our current circumstances, it might be more relevant to read the definition this way: "any incident . . . that results in extraordinary levels of . . . disruption severely affecting the U.S. . . . economy."

President Bush could declare a catastrophic emergency today. And he'd have the 3rd Infantry, First Brigade Combat Team, well trained from its years patrolling Iraq, at his disposal here at home.

Copyright 2008 The Progressive Magazine

Note from The Progressive's editor: Matthew Rothschild was on Democracy Now! on October 7 debating Army Col. Michael Boatner, USNORTHCOM future operations division chief.

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