WASHINGTON, D.C.—In a January 1999 interview that drew little public attention, President Clinton stated that, as part of a major buildup in counterterror defenses, he was considering a Pentagon proposal to establish a commander for the defense of the continental United States. The idea of a military commander to oversee internal security is unprecedented. Such a step would expand the military's domestic role and has weighty and potentially ominous implications for civil rights, civil-military relations, civilian control—and for the kind of democracy that U.S. citizens take for granted.
The national security establishment sees a range of potential threats, from terrorist assaults on infrastructure or national computer systems to chemical or biological attacks, which, they maintain, law enforcement and civilian agencies are ill-equipped to handle. Military units are required, in this view, to conduct rescue operations, maintain order and defend against terrorist threats.
To many critics, a domestic army role would blur the line between military and police functions, further eroding Posse Comitatus, the 1878 law that prohibits use of the military in civilian law enforcement and internal security. There is already a disturbing trend in this direction, as witnessed by the expansion of the military role in drug-interdiction operations and in the maintenance of domestic order—as during the 1992 riots after the Rodney King trial and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The idea of an expanded domestic role for the military has been brewing for some years. In May 1997, the Defense Department, prodded by Congress, established the "Domestic Preparedness in the Defense against WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] Program," directed by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. The program set up military assistance and training for law enforcement and for federal, state and local civilian agencies, enlarging military influence in domestic affairs. In June 1998, Deputy Secretary of Defense John J. Hamre stated that "we have [had] unified commanders in chief [CINC] and the world is divided among them. There was one country that was never in a CINC's area of responsibility and that was the United States.... Those days are over. We are going to have to assign the United States to a CINC to start worrying about homeland defense."
Pentagon plans include greater use of the National Guard and Reserve forces in domestic (especially urban) operations, and greater domestic intelligence and counterintelligence capacities. The Pentagon has created new specialized units of National Guard soldiers called Rapid Assessment, Identification and Detection (RAID) teams and is now placing them in ten geographical regions of the United States. In recent months, the press has reported military urban warfare and special operations training exercises in New York, Illinois, California, Florida and Texas.
The question of a domestic military role has been discussed in military publications for several years. One officer writing in an armed forces publication, Tomorrow's Missions, in 1996 called for a military role in "internal peace-keeping ... [and] maintain[ing] stability in a rapidly changing America." In one alarmist 1994 article, two marines and one civilian analyst wrote that "the next real war we fight is likely to be on American soil." And a fictional, cautionary tale about the "American coup of 2012" appeared in the Winter 1992/1993 issue of Parameters, a U.S. Army journal, written by an Army officer concerned with the "mission creep" and expanding role of the U.S. military in recent years.
Role expansion in general and counterterror operations in particular, which draw on counterinsurgency doctrine, tend to politicize militaries. Historically—and certainly in Latin America—large and politicized militaries with domestic security functions have endangered democratic processes. Distinctions between foreign and domestic enemies become hazy and citizens become suspect. "Homeland defense" blurs the line between civilian and military authority and gives military commanders increasing influence in political affairs and national decision-making. Military units may become a more intrusive presence in society. Domestic military intelligence and surveillance pose threats to freedoms of the press, of assembly, of free speech and expression, and of protection from unreasonable search and seizure. But the U.S. public seems unaware of the recent steps expanding the military's domestic role.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J. Patrice McSherry teaches politics at Long Island University-Brooklyn and is author of Incomplete Transition: Military Power and Democracy in Argentina (St. Martin's Press, 1997).