Send in the Marines?

"Send in the Marines." For more than two centuries, those words — or something similar — have been uttered hundreds of times by our nation’s leaders when it became necessary to protect American lives, property, interests and security. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, "Send in the Marines," may take on a whole new meaning.

This week, while hundreds of square miles of storm-devastated Louisiana and Mississippi are still inhabitable, the House Government Reform Committee began hearings into what went wrong in responding to Katrina. Unfortunately, before we have even determined what went wrong, "official Washington" — meaning the Bush Administration and Congress — seems to have already come up with the answer. For future disasters, send in the Marines — and the Army, Navy and Air Force.

In response to reporters’ questions, President Bush said, "I want there to be a robust discussion about the best way for the federal government, in certain extreme circumstances, to be able to rally assets for the good of the people." He went on to ask, "Is there a natural disaster of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?" The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Virginia’s "Senior Senator" — who ought to know better — has said, "I believe the time has come that we reflect on the Posse Comitatus Act," in urging that the president and secretary of defense be given "correct standby authorities" to manage natural and perhaps man-made disasters.

These are the reactions of national leaders — and many in the public — who were  misled by the hyperventilated claims of local politicians and authorities that "more than 10,000 are probably dead," that "rapes and murders" were occurring in the Superdome and that "all law and order have broken down" in New Orleans. We now know that the death toll is a fraction of that forecasted by state and local officials. And while there were well-documented cases of looting, the homicides and rampant sexual assaults that were reported — but never verified — by the mainstream media were, for the most part, untrue.

Nonetheless, Washington wants to "fix" the problem. But before we decide that the 10th Amendment to the Constitution has no meaning whatsoever, and give our already stretched Armed Forces yet another mission, all the helpful politicians on the Potomac need to take a deep breath. The suggestions that the Pentagon become the "lead agency" for disasters undoubtedly sounds good to those who watched live on cable news as the mobilized National Guard, 82nd Airborne, 4th Infantry Division, 8th Marines, USAF transports and half a dozen U.S. Navy ships supplemented the U.S. Coast Guard in the disaster.

The men and women of our Armed Forces were efficient and effective. They did a great job in New Orleans — as they have done on every operation in which I’ve been a participant or observer for the last forty years. They did what they were ordered to do and did it well. As one young soldier told me, quoting one of our FOX News slogans — "This is what we do."

But is this what we want our military to be doing? Before we decide to rescind the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, put the Secretary of Defense in charge of disaster relief and give this — or any other president — more federal power over our state and local governments, serious questions need to be answered and the facts should be known.

First, neither this president nor any other needs more "legal" or legislated authority to send U.S. troops into the teeth of a disaster. Every president’s aide carry PEADs — Presidential Emergency Action Documents — which draft Executive Orders giving the Chief Executive broad authorities in the midst of a declared national emergency. In May of 1992, President George H. W. Bush issued such an order at the request of the California governor during the "Rodney King riots" in Los Angeles. His Executive Order 12804 suspended the proscriptions of Posse Comitatus to allow Army and Marine units to "restore law and order."

Second, the military is already tasked to provide — under the provisions of the "Stafford Act" — significant material support to governors and other jurisdictions which make such requests of the president in the midst of a declared emergency. Understandably, the Commander-in-Chief does not relinquish control over the federal troops being used in such circumstances.

Most importantly, we need to avoid degrading the readiness of our 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Today, 395,000 of them are deployed overseas –170,000 of them fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every time we take a rifleman or a radio from preparation to fight, we place them in future jeopardy. Helicopters, trucks, communications equipment and people all wear out. When and where do we want them trained in domestic law enforcement?

In 1991, at the time of the first Gulf War, the U.S. Army had eighteen active duty divisions. Today, there are only ten. Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship Navy has been whittled down to 280 "deployable battle force ships." The Air Force currently fields thirteen active duty fighter wings, half of what it was just fifteen years ago. What is the "extreme circumstance" in which they are to be used for domestic disasters instead of preparing to fight?

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a "disaster" is defined as "Hazards that impact on human lives, causing adverse physical, social, economic or even political effects that exceed the ability to rapidly and effectively respond."

Do we also want U.S. troops prepared to respond to tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes, mudslides and, according to one FEMA medical disaster manual, incidents like the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker spill — defined as a "property only" or "environment only" disaster?

Those who are debating what needs to be done to mitigate the consequences of the next "extreme circumstance" need to answer these questions before the answer becomes: "Send in the Marines."