- President Clinton doesn't need to sign
an executive order to start a full-scale gun grab. He doesn't need to declare
martial law if he wants to use the armed forces to deal with public unrest.
And if he figures a state government isn't doing all it should to enforce
some federal law that nobody likes, he can use federal troops to make certain
that the law is complied with -- even if the governor and everyone living
in the state are adamantly opposed to it.
- He can do all these things on his own,
without seeking advice or approval from Congress.
- Not even the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act,
which Congress intended as a shield to protect citizens from the military,
places any significant limitations on presidential power.
- That's what Virginia attorneys William
Olson and Alan Woll discovered when they looked into the matter for Gun
Owners of America, a Washington-based lobbying organization dedicated to
defending the Second Amendment.
- Last December Olson and Woll published
an analysis on "Executive Orders and National Emergencies: Presidential
Power Grab Nearly Unchecked," which was featured in WorldNetDaily.
This earlier work prompted Larry Pratt, president and executive director
of GOA, to commission the attorneys to examine a related issue.
- "I asked them to look at all the
executive orders and see if there was a nexus with guns; some kind of hook
that would allow the government to get a hook on our trigger guards, so
our guns can be pulled from our hands through some power they had delegated
to themselves by executive order," Pratt recalled in a telephone interview.
- Though unable to find a direct reference
that would permit gun confiscation, "What they discovered was worse,"
said Pratt. "The president doesn't have to sign an executive order.
He already has the power to go after our guns."
- The Olson-Woll report entitled "Presidential
Powers to Use the U.S. Armed Forces to control Potential Civilian Disturbances,"
developed naturally from their earlier research, but it is written as though
it were a memo to the president, from a "Counsel's Office," in
response to a White House request for a legal opinion about how far the
president can go in using the military for law enforcement purposes in
the event of a Y2K or other crisis: Would a declaration of martial law
be necessary to call out the military? What about the Posse Comitatus Act?
- "This memorandum is fictional but
accurately depicts the broad powers assumed and exercised by presidents
to utilize U.S. military forces to regulate civilian activity," the
authors state in a disclaimer.
- "We wrote it that way to draw peoples'
attention to the issues," Olson explained by telephone. "We hoped
that using this format to present the information would make it more real.
A lot of what we talk about sounds like history, but it's quite current,
and one could imagine the president asking for advice on this very issue."
- The answers to the hypothetical questions
came as a "complete surprise" to Larry Pratt and to the authors
themselves. "We had no idea that his powers were so broad," said
Olson. "The fact that there are these vast standby statutory powers
is shocking. I'm afraid Congress keeps passing the laws that grant this
power and never stands back and asks, 'What have we done?' It's time that
they start looking and asking."
- The statutes referred to are found in
Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which deals with the Armed Forces. Through them
the president is given authority to intervene with military force in a
state's domestic disputes, upon request from the state legislature or governor
-- or without it. Some examples cited by Olson and Woll:
- Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 331: Whenever
there is an insurrection in any State against its government, the President
may, upon the request of its legislature or its governor ... use such of
the armed forces, as he considers necessary to suppress the insurrection.
- Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 332: Whenever
the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages,
or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable
to enforce the laws of the United States in any State or Territory ...
he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and
use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those
laws or to suppress the rebellion.
- Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 333: The
President, by using the militia or the armed forces, or both, or by other
means, shall take such measures as he considers necessary to suppress,
in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination or
conspiracy, if it hinders the execution of the laws of that State, and
of the United States within the State ... or opposes or obstructs the execution
of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under
those laws ...
- Olson and Woll discovered that the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled in 1863 that the president can unilaterally decide
whether an insurrection is in effect and determine how much force is necessary
to suppress it. He can "brand as belligerents the inhabitants of any
area in general insurrection."
- Equally shocking, in Olson's view, as
the fact that the president can use the military against civilians, is
the fact that former presidents have done so on "many occasions"
-- none of them declaring martial law.
- For example, in 1914 President Woodrow
Wilson deployed federal troops in Colorado to suppress a labor dispute.
Olson-Wolls point out that Wilson ordered the U.S. Army to disarm American
citizens -- including state and local officials, sheriffs, the police and
the National Guard; to arrest American citizens; to monitor the state judicial
process and re-arrest (and hold in military custody) persons released by
the state courts; and to deny writs of habeas corpus issued by state courts.
- Earlier, in South Carolina in 1871, without
declaring martial law, President Grant sent troops into nine counties of
South Carolina to enforce a proclamation commanding the residents to give
up their arms and ammunition.
- Between 1807 and 1925, federal troops
were used more than 100 times to quell domestic disturbances -- sometimes
the presence of the troops alone was enough to discourage the participants.
- "Look at the history," Olson
exclaimed. "None of what's happening is new. Could you ever imagine
that the President of the United States could order the Army to disarm
sheriffs, disarm police, and disarm the National Guard? Isn't that beyond
what you'd ever dream?
- "But it has happened. It's the fact
that this has happened that should cause people to take this issue seriously."
- But doesn't the Posse Comitatus Act provide
restrictions against the use of the military? This is the act that prohibits
the Army or Air force from acting as a posse comitatus -- "the population
of a county the sheriff may summon to assist him in certain cases."
- "No one should ever think the Posse
Comitatus Act is any check whatsoever on the ability of the federal government
to employ military might against civilians," said Olson.
- "We were surprised at how weak the
Posse Comitatus Act is," he continued. "There have been no prosecutions
ever, and it doesn't apply to any branch of the armed forces except the
Army and the Air Force. It doesn't have any implementing regulations, yet
it has a huge exception -- that deployment of the Army or Air Force as
a posse comitatus is a crime, 'except in cases and under circumstances
expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress.'
- "That 'Constitution or Act of Congress'
exception is so broad you can drive a truck through," Olson remarked.
- "The final thing that surprised
us was that that the military doesn't need an order from the president
to have control over civilians," Olson said. "I had always thought
only the president could declare martial law, but apparently not. Apparently
any commander can do it, can suspend all civil rights."
- Larry Pratt considers this last the most
egregious of all the Olson-Woll findings.
- "Military commanders can act on
the basis that there is an emergency," said Pratt. "They don't
have to wait until martial law is declared. The powers that they have in
their hands are tremendous.
- "People can't expect President Clinton
to sit there in front of a camera and say, 'Tonight I have declared martial
law,'" Pratt said. "You'll just find out about it when you try
and get on the main highway and there's a humvee with a soldier who says,
'Turn back.' And when you ask why, he puts his gun into ready position
and says, 'I'm only following orders. Please turn back.'
- "You can challenge that. You can
say they -- the commander or the soldier -- have no constitutional authority
for this, and you may be correct. But you will be arguing on the wrong
side of a barbed wire fence. They can simply do it. It will not be debated.
- "It's wonderful," Pratt noted,
ironically. "It goes beyond what [White House spokesperson] Paul Begala
said about executive orders: You know, 'Stroke of a pen. Law of the land.
Kinda cool.' Martial law could be initiated by one commander sending an
e-mail to a guy at the base to muster his troops.
- "Stroke of a keyboard, martial law.
Kinda cool," Pratt said.
- ---- © 1999 Western Journalism Center