- WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President
George W. Bush asked Congress on Tuesday to consider giving him powers
to use the military to enforce quarantines in case of an avian influenza
- He said the military, and perhaps the National Guard,
might be needed to take such a role if the feared H5N1 bird flu virus changes
enough to cause widespread human infection.
- "If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United
States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country? And how do
you, then, enforce a quarantine?" Bush asked at a news conference.
- "It's one thing to shut down airplanes. It's
another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian
flu. And who best to be able to effect a quarantine?" Bush added.
- "One option is the use of a military that's
able to plan and move. So that's why I put it on the table. I think it's
an important debate for Congress to have."
- Bird flu has killed more than 60 people in four Asian
nations since late 2003 and has been found in birds in Russia and Europe.
- Experts fear that the H5N1 bird flu virus, which
appears to be highly fatal when it infects people, will develop the ability
to pass easily from person to person and would cause a pandemic that would
- "And I think the president ought to have all
... assets on the table to be able to deal with something this significant,"
- He noted that some governors may object to the federal
government commandeering the National Guard, which is under state command
in most circumstances.
- Police Duties Banned
- "But Congress needs to take a look at circumstances
that may need to vest the capacity of the president to move beyond that
debate. And one such catastrophe or one such challenge could be an avian
flu outbreak," Bush said.
- The active duty military is currently forbidden from
undertaking law enforcement duties by the federal Posse Comitatus Act.
- That law, passed in 1878 after the US Civil War,
does not prohibit National Guard troops under state control from doing
police work. But, unless the law is changed, it would keep them from doing
so if they were activated by Washington under federal control.
- While the law allows the president to order the military
to take control and do police work in an extreme emergency, the White House
has been traditionally reluctant to usurp state powers.
- Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters he
was not aware of any current planning by the military to help respond to
a flu pandemic.
- But he noted that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
devastated the Gulf region, Bush had asked Congress to consider giving
the military control over initial response in dealing with major natural
or other domestic disasters.
- "Obviously the (Defense) Department has a tremendous
amount of capability in a lot of areas. And we are a large force,"
Whitman said, noting also that the military had deployed field hospitals
to Louisiana after the hurricanes.
- Health experts are working to develop vaccines that
would protect against the H5N1 strain of flu, because current influenza
vaccines will not.
- And countries are also developing stockpiles of drugs
that can reduce the risk of serious disease or even sometimes prevent infection
- but supplies and manufacturing capacity are both limited.
- Bush said he was involved in planning for an influenza
pandemic, which experts say will definitely come, although they cannot
predict when, or whether it will be H5N1 or some other virus.