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The Nation

U.S. to Get Single Military Umbrella

April 18, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The task of defending the continental United States from terrorist attacks will be brought under a single military command beginning Oct. 1 as part of a major restructuring, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

The new operation, dubbed Northern Command, will put a four-star general in charge of protecting U.S. territory, including coastal waters, and organizes the military for the first time to defend against threats emanating from inside the country.

The command will be charged with protecting domestic airspace and managing the military's response to natural disasters, as well as chemical, biological, nuclear and other attacks, defense officials said.

Under the existing arrangement set up after World War II, responsibility for U.S. territory was shared by numerous commands. Homeland defense was a bureaucratic stepchild.

But since Sept. 11, the defense of U.S. territory has become a pressing priority, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted in outlining the creation of Northern Command and other changes to the military's unified command plan.

He said the new command would "defend the American people where they live" against possible threats from "the world's most irresponsible regimes."

Until now, the Pentagon has divided its war-fighting responsibilities around the world into four geographically based command operations: European; Pacific; Central, with responsibility for much of the Middle East; and Southern, which oversees military operations in the Western hemisphere.

Northern Command will have responsibility for the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, portions of the Caribbean, and contiguous waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans extending 500 miles from shore.

President Bush is expected to nominate Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart as its first commander. It will likely be headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that decisions have yet to be made on which U.S.-based forces will be overseen by Northern Command.

Among the open questions are control of the Coast Guard, which in peacetime is part of the Department of Transportation, and of a proposed U.S. missile defense system, possibly based in Alaska.

Rumsfeld stressed that the new command is designed to unify existing military functions--including the use of Air Force jets patrolling U.S. cities and Navy ships running coastal checks--rather than to increase the mission of the military in homeland defense.

The Posse Comitatus Act, an 1878 law crafted to curtail the use of Army soldiers in law enforcement after the Civil War, forbids the military from engaging in police activities "except in cases or under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress."

The law has been viewed as severely limiting actions the military can take on U.S. soil. As a result, the Pentagon has always played a supporting role to civil authorities when disasters of man or of nature have struck--and has sometimes failed to respond fast enough.

"Probably if you looked back at how the [Defense] Department responded to needs up in New York after the World Trade Center, you might find that, while not confusion, there was not good unity of effort in that case," Myers said.

The military has struggled since Sept. 11 to determine how much authority it has to operate at home. It has directed a team of military lawyers at the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., to assess the reach of the Posse Comitatus Act.

Northern Command will have overall responsibility within the military for homeland defense. On the civilian side, it will coordinate with the White House's Office of Homeland Defense.

"The creation of Northern Command is significant because it will concentrate many of the military assets that would be required to support homeland defense under one operational four-star commander; and traditionally inside the Pentagon, that is when a mission finally gets the sort of resourcing and attention it deserves," said Michele Flournoy, who served in the Defense Department under President Clinton.

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