The American Theater

Dec. 1, 2006

From the inside, the nerve center for America’s newest unified warfighting command looks much like the command centers of its predecessors. A wall of large video screens fronted by computer stations in the Joint Operations Center provides an electronic window onto a complex and dangerous theater of operations. Fighter aircraft patrol the sky, ready to vector at the first indication of an airborne attack. A picket line of naval forces guards sea approaches. Sophisticated radars keep lookout against missile strike. Thousands of soldiers guard against incursions across a potentially violent frontier.

What’s unique about this Joint Operations Center, however, is that it resides at Peterson AFB, Colo., where it watches over the American homeland for US Northern Command.

At NORTHCOM—more, probably, than at any other place—one grasps the fact that the US military has assumed a more prominent role in the homeland than at any time in this country’s modern history. In fact, NORTHCOM is the physical embodiment of a military presence on American soil that would have once seemed unthinkable.

Earlier this year, Army Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., the NORTHCOM operations director, told Congress, “Day to day, our headquarters is focused on deterring, preventing, and defeating attacks on our homeland, and we also stand ready to assist primary agencies in responding to man-made and natural disasters when directed by the President or Secretary of Defense.”

In 2005, NORTHCOM responded to four major hurricanes. One of them, Hurricane Katrina, brought about an unprecedentedly large mobilization that saw the deployment of 66,000 active duty and reserve troops to the Gulf Coast. Rowe said that NORTHCOM’s command center had established a special watch desk just to track National Guard operations in various states.

To the Border

Today, NORTHCOM has deployed 6,000 Guardsmen to the US-Mexico border to help staunch the flow of illegal immigrants from the south.

NORTHCOM has also dispatched defense coordinating officers to each of the regional field offices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, ready to act as conduits to massive US military support in the event of a hurricane, earthquake, terrorist attack, or other “incidents of national significance.”

Some 36 National Guard weapons of mass destruction civil support teams are stationed around the country, prepared to respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack inside the United States.

Thanks to a new law passed by Congress last year specifically to allow such deployments, the National Guard also periodically provides troops to protect critical domestic infrastructure such as nuclear power plants.

Special Forces units such as the Delta Force reportedly continue to conduct exercises and train to take out terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction—inside the United States if need be.

Meanwhile, reserve Special Forces detachments have deployed clandestinely inside the United States to monitor airstrips and smuggling routes favored by drug cartels. And in the Caribbean, gray-hulled Navy warships stand ready to hoist a Coast Guard flag and intercept smugglers.

This is all part of a rapid expansion of the military’s reach into areas once deemed the exclusive purview of domestic law enforcement and emergency response agencies. While the armed forces have traditionally been the protectors of last resort in times of national crisis, two modern phenomena have resulted in increased military prominence. They are global drug cartels and transnational terrorism.

The rise in power, scope, and capability of such “nonstate” actors has proved to be a dark underbelly of globalization. Well-financed drug cartels and terrorist organizations with global reach have presented law enforcement officials with challenges and threats that simply outstrip the capabilities and reach of any one agency.

The expansion of the military’s role in the Global War on Terror was very much an extension of a process that began in 1989, with the initial drafting of a reluctant military into the “war on drugs.”

A Rose Is a Rose

A transnational threat is a transnational threat, regardless of whether it’s drug traffickers, terrorists, illegal narcotics, or weapons of mass destruction. The assets the government uses to investigate, detect, and monitor those threats—and the methods of interdicting and apprehending suspects—are virtually the same. It was therefore probably inevitable that the Pentagon would eventually be brought into the war on drugs and Global War on Terror. No other agency can duplicate the Defense Department’s unparalleled capabilities in command and control, strategic intelligence, secure communications, operational planning, strategic and tactical transport, and logistics support.

However, there are also pitfalls inherent in the military’s steadily increasing participation in nontraditional missions. Already-busy troops now find themselves pulled in new directions—such as the southern border.

The decision to deploy National Guard troops to the border “represents a significant shift in thinking about the traditional role of the military on domestic soil,” said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, earlier this year. Men and women dedicated to protecting their home states as citizen soldiers and airmen, who have also “been sent for a second deployment in the Iraqi desert,” are likely to be “asked to come home and spend another year in the Arizona desert.”

As evidenced during the chaotic and much-analyzed response to Hurricane Katrina last year, operations combining multiple federal, state, and local agencies, with substantial military forces, are rife with command-chain problems and can be plagued by disjointed efforts.

Such operations also stretch the boundaries that the US generally puts its uniformed troops. Military involvement in wars on drugs and terror, for instance, have steadily eroded the authority of the Civil War Reconstruction-era Posse Comitatus Act.

Posse Comitatus was passed in 1878 in response to the extensive use of Army troops to maintain order in the South during Reconstruction. The act supposedly bars US troops from domestic law enforcement activities such as searches, seizures, detentions, and arrest.

For a democracy born with a predisposition to view large standing armies with suspicion, the perception of a growing US military presence in American life is often viewed with concern.

“Some military officers welcome domestic law enforcement duties in a world where hijacked airliners, anthrax-infested envelopes, and other serious threats arise close to home,” Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force, recently wrote in the Washington Post.

“Americans in the end do not like heavy-handed security efforts, regardless of how well-intended they are, and typically react quite negatively to them,” Dunlap continued. “Think Kent State, Waco, and Ruby Ridge. … America’s full-time military will do whatever is asked of it, but America must carefully consider what it asks.”

The Cartel Threats

In the wake of the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged many US cities in the 1980s, Washington officials came to view the powerful drug cartels and their global criminal enterprises as strategic threats to the nation.

The drug cartels had vast resources and powerful political connections overseas that put them beyond the reach of any single US law enforcement or border control agency.

As a result, Congress passed a 1989 Defense Authorization Act that for the first time assigned the military the lead role in detecting and monitoring drug traffic in foreign countries and in “transit zones.”

Thus was the military officially drafted into the war on drugs. It did not take long for the military’s anti-drug mission to migrate onto American soil.

After some initial reluctance, the Pentagon embraced the counterdrug mission with typical can-do enthusiasm. DOD established three multiagency joint task forces for counternarcotics operations.

Though the task forces represent an alliance of federal civilian agencies and the military, they report to admirals and four-star generals, marking the substantial militarization of the war on drugs.

The Pentagon also built an elaborate network of radars to detect drug smugglers, including over-the-horizon radars with 2,500-mile ranges based in Puerto Rico, Virginia, and Texas and aerostat radar balloons tethered in the Caribbean and along the southern border. (See “Are Airships For Real?” November, p. 67.)

Most Americans would probably be surprised at the hands-on involvement of the military in often deadly counterdrug missions. Spy satellites, Air Force Airborne Warning and Control System surveillance aircraft, and Navy submarines routinely tracked suspected drug shipments in the transit zone. Army Special Forces trained local military forces in Central and South America in counternarcotics operations. Special Forces surveillance teams even monitored drug trafficking routes and favored airstrips inside the United States.

Military commanders had to devise clever work-arounds to avoid violating Posse Comitatus. At one point in the mid-1990s, for instance, nearly half of drug seizures on the high seas were conducted by small Coast Guard detachments operating aboard Navy warships, a tactic specifically designed to sidestep Posse Comitatus provisions forbidding military personnel from making arrests.

Pentagon legal analysts determined that all the detachments had to do was hoist a Coast Guard flag to turn a Navy gray hull temporarily into a Coast Guard cutter (the Coast Guard is both an armed service and a law enforcement agency and thus is not bound by Posse Comitatus). In many other instances, military ships tracked drug running aircraft or boats, but handed off the arrest to a law enforcement agency in the operation’s final stage.

Evading the Posse

By far the most common work-around, however, was to employ National Guard troops in their Title 32, or state, status under which they report to state governors and are not bound by Posse Comitatus. It was not uncommon during the 1990s to see uniformed Army Guard troops not only helping construct roads and barriers at the southern border, but also boarding up crack houses in inner-city neighborhoods throughout the United States and searching cargo at major seaports.

National Guard helicopters routinely searched for domestic marijuana farms or used infrared devices to locate methamphetamine labs.

The military’s expansive new counterdrug missions led to some tragedies that kept on the front burner the question of whether military forces should be engaged in law enforcement activities.

For example, in April 2001, a US surveillance aircraft handed off the tracking of a suspected drug running airplane to the Peruvian pilot of an A-37 fighter aircraft taking part in the US-coordinated Joint Air Bridge Denial program. Ultimately, the Peruvian fighter sent the civilian aircraft plummeting into the Amazon River in flames with two short bursts from its nose-mounted 7.62-caliber mini-gun.

Only later did the wreckage reveal that the unarmed civilian airplane was carrying a Baptist missionary family. A mother and her seven-month-old daughter were killed, and the American pilot of the aircraft was severely wounded.

After the trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there was little doubt that the military would see its roles and missions expand further into the realm of counterterrorism, which had also previously been treated as a law enforcement matter. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Americans saw the deployment of tens of thousands of National Guard troops on their streets and in airports under Title 32 authority.

Americans also confronted the reality that a terrorist attack using nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons of mass destruction could prove even more devastating in terms of destruction and death toll.

In response to those sobering realities and President Bush’s declared Global War on Terror, in 2002 the US established both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and US Northern Command. NORTHCOM was given dual roles in “homeland defense” and “homeland security.”

In the former more narrowly defined role, Northern Command is responsible for repelling an enemy attack on the United States via air, land, or sea. In such instances, Northern Command’s chain of command goes directly up through the Secretary of Defense and the President.

In the broader realm of homeland security, which primarily involves the federal government’s preparation for and response to terrorist attacks and other major disasters, NORTHCOM is one of many supporting agencies that fall under the tasking of DHS, albeit with the necessary approval of the Defense Secretary.

In an attempt to sort out the complex and shifting command arrangements involved in homeland security missions, and to smooth over the various seams between agencies tasked with responding to disasters, DHS developed the National Response Plan. The NRP attempted to outline what constitutes a national emergency and which agency would likely take the lead in responding, given the unique circumstances of the crisis.

Disaster War Plans

For its part, NORTHCOM developed the first “war plans” for responding to natural disasters or terrorist attacks, positing 15 crisis scenarios of escalating consequence. As Hurricane Katrina made clear, however, neither the National Response Plan, nor NORTHCOM’S crisis scenarios were sufficient to answer a beguilingly simple question at a massive disaster scene: Who is in charge

Adm. Thad W. Allen, Coast Guard Commandant, was given the reins of the Hurricane Katrina response effort roughly a week after the storm struck the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans. As the designated “principal federal official” on scene, Allen saw the confusion that results when the military—with its take charge culture—interacts with other governmental agencies in a disaster zone without a clear chain of command.

“I faced a quandary at the time,” Allen said in an interview. “How much independent authority did I have to organize the mission when that was really a state and local government responsibility? … We had to negotiate everything.”

Allen said he would sit down with Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, and city officials to “come up with a proposal for what needed to happen next, and then take it to the city’s leadership. While city officials would usually acquiesce to our plans, it was a highly fluid and sometimes chaotic way to operate.”

Allen said that he and Honore “took a lot of license in determining what needed to be done, but whenever there was a strong objection by the city, the mayor had the last word. The US Constitution stipulates that all powers not granted to the federal government reside in the states. Believe me, I repeated that to myself quite a few times last year.”

On May 15, 2006, President Bush announced that he was increasing the Border Patrol force at the southern border by 6,000 agents. The National Guard was asked to fill in while the new guards were hired and trained.

In responding to President Bush’s request to once again expand military operations on American soil, officials have typically had to walk a legal and procedural tightrope. Commanders concede they will be flying unmanned reconnaissance drones over US territory as part of the mission, for instance, but insist they will not be spying on Americans.

Very Careful

“I want it very clear for this committee to know that those military [intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance] platforms will not be used to collect intelligence on the American people,” said Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, before the House this year. “We will be very careful how they are employed.”

The military will not process the intelligence, he said, and is “only providing the platform for the collection.”

The National Guard troops will remain in Title 32 status under command of their respective governors, once again sidestepping Posse Comitatus (though officials insist that the agreed-upon rules of engagement, while allowing for self-defense and limited use of force, will not actually include law enforcement activities).

To authorize funding of the mission under Title 32, the Pentagon has also had to describe the National Guard operations on the border as “training.”

“As we have been doing in the counternarcotics program since 1989, we’ll be using engineers for engineering purposes, we’ll be using pilots to fly aircraft, we’ll be using [intelligence] analysts for intel support,” said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland security, before Congress.

“We will keep our soldiers and our airmen within the requirements of their [annual] training. … We will not ask them, under any circumstance, to engage in law enforcement-related activities.”

Under expected provisions of the Defense Authorization Act of 2007, the President should also soon have expanded authorities to federalize the National Guard for domestic operations. The new provisions basically broaden the definition of what constitutes an applicable emergency under the Insurrection Act, through which Presidents have taken control of National Guard forces at least 10 times since World War II.

“The new language broadens the President’s power and makes it easier for him to federalize the National Guard even in emergencies that fall short of the present definition of ‘insurrection,'” said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States.

“Because Congress did this at the behest of the White House and without consulting the governors, we’re obviously concerned,” said Goheen. “We think the National Guard is a shared resource, and we’re concerned this usurps the authority of the governors.”

More broadly, some lawmakers are concerned that a series of new laws continuing to broaden the military’s reach into domestic affairs, combined with historic trends toward a greater reliance on uniformed troops to combat the scourges of transnational drug cartels and terrorists, may be chipping away at important principles.

For instance, calling military operations at the Mexican border “training,” “contorts the meaning of training as we would ordinarily understand it,” said Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.).

The military’s role in supporting and conducting domestic operations is clearly far from settled. The unique capabilities that military forces offer, the need for those capabilities to counter terror and drug threats, and the traditional opposition to their employment within US borders all mean that the controversy is unlikely to subside.

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “A Better Way to Run a War,” appeared in the October issue.