Pentagon-FEMA Battle Over
Plans For Homeland
Military Command
By Robert Windrem
A battle is looming over the issue of creating a Homelands Defense Command, a military unit responsible for managing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The debate stems from the possibility that in a time of national crisis, a situation could evolve in which American military forces find themselves operating as a national police force patrolling the streets of U.S. cities, similar to the events portrayed in the movie 'The Siege.'
THE IDEA OF a separate military command, first broached publicly by President Clinton in a New York Times interview on Jan. 22, was to be discussed at last year's conference of Pentagon commanders-in-chief. The proposal is being pushed by Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, the No. 2 person at the Pentagon.
However, when Federal Emergency Management Administration Director James Lee Witt was briefed on the issue, he called Secretary of Defense William Cohen and asked that FEMA be removed from the agenda pending further review.
Witt told Cohen he disagreed with the notion 'philosophically' and does not believe the military should have primary responsibility for managing the consequences of a national crisis. Witt argued that the situation should remain a civilian responsibility.
Under a presidential order issued in June 1995, FEMA has primary responsibility for 'consequence management' after a domestic terrorist attack, while the FBI would be responsible for the investigation. Using its substantial operational and technical capabilities, the military would be called in to assist either or both agencies, and determine whether to evacuate a city, provide large-scale medical treatment, or assess the dangers of specific biological or chemical agents used in an attack.
The secret order was signed in the months following not only the Oklahoma City bombing - the most significant act of terrorism ever on American soil - but three other events that raised fears of a domestic chemical or biological weapons attack:
The Aum Shinryko cult sarin gas attack on a Tokyosubway in April 1995.
A hoax at Disneyland the following weekend in which someone made a credible threat of a similar attack there.
The admission by Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, that he had planned to include cyanide gas in the attack " but couldn,t afford it.
The position of the Pentagon's Hamre is that since the military will have to be called in to handle any such crisis, its role should be formalized and structured. In addition to either creating a Homeland Defense Command or renaming the Atlantic Command - another option - Hamre has talked about creating a bi-national command with Canada, a la NORAD. Since then, the proposal has been toned down to a joint task force under a four-star general, based in the Atlantic Command.
But all options remain on the table.
This weekend, FEMA's Deputy Director, R. Michael Walker, and Hamre are expected to meet to discuss the issue.
FEMA believes that such a military intrusion into managing a national disaster would send the wrong message during a time of national crisis and that the military would not have the sensitivities needed during a crisis.
An example: In 1997, the Marines wanted to send their Chemical Biological Incident Response Force into action along the Inaugural Parade route on Inauguration Day. The political types in the Pentagon stopped them, but FEMA worries that a four-star general might not understand the sensitivities.
The concerns run deep among certain factions of Americans who fear any military involvement in civil defense. When the National Guard began planning a series of exercises designed to prepare its forces for the possibility of social breakdown related to computer failures at the century's turn on Jan. 1, 2000 = the so-called 'Y2K bug' - extreme convervatives began warning that the exercises represented a 'New World Order' plan to install martial law. The alarm went up on the Internet, particularly circulating among so-called 'Patriot' or 'militia movement' Web sites.
The problems for the plan extend to other, more mundane bureaucratic turf wars as well. The first-responder program and a few others already funded have recently been moved from the Pentagon to the Justice Department's National Disaster Preparedness Office. There will be officials from various U.S. agencies working there, so Justice officials may oppose the plan as well.
However, the plans clearly are intended to address a real need. While there is no intelligence on either a specific or immediate threat of domestic terrorism, the plans are an acknowledgement that such acts can happen. After all, the best intelligence did not detect the Aum Shinryko cult, the World Trade Center bombers or Timothy McVeigh.