U.S. Should Consider Giving Military Arrest Powers, Ridge Says

Bloomberg News 07/21/02: Alex Canizares

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The government should consider reversing a more than a century of tradition and law to give the military authority to make arrests and fire their weapons on U.S. soil in the event of a terrorist attack, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said.

Fears that terrorists might attempt a nuclear, biological or chemical attack on U.S. territory are prompting some lawmakers to support revisions to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which restricts the use of the military in civilian law enforcement.

``I think it is time to revisit it,'' Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, said on the ``Fox News Sunday'' program. That would ``allow for military that has expertise with weapons of mass destruction to be called in'' if such a plot was discovered.

Since terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon on Sept. 11, Congress has given law enforcement agencies more latitude to conduct wiretapping and other intelligence gathering to uncover terrorist plotting. President George W. Bush has proposed the biggest government reorganization in 50 years to put more than 100 offices and agencies into one department devoted to homeland security.

The Bush administration already has taken step to investigate giving the military a larger domestic security role, the New York Times reported today. Air Force General Ralph Eberhart, who is in charge of U.S. defenses against attack, had urged the review, the newspaper said.

Legal Review

Lawyers in the Departments of Justice and Defense are looking into the legal questions that might be raised by greater involvement of military personnel, the Times reported.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in May that the Pentagon would not seek expanded law enforcement powers and some defense officials are wary of making any changes, the Times said.

Congress revised the Posse Comitatus Act in 1981 to allow the military to help the Coast Guard in drug interdiction efforts. Another change would require congressional approval.

Ridge said officials haven't yet discussed giving the military powers to arrest U.S. citizens, though such authority might be discussed once Bush's homeland security department is created.

``Generally that goes against our instincts as a country to empower the military with the ability to arrest,'' Ridge said on ``Late Edition'' on the Cable News Network. ``But it may come up as a part of a discussion. It does not mean that it will ever be used or that the discussion will conclude that it even should be used.''

Unrealistic Limits

Biden said he may revive a proposal he sponsored with former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn to revise the Reconstruction-era limits the Army, Navy, and later the Air Force's law enforcement authorities. That plan was prompted by the bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building by a domestic terrorist.

It is ``not very realistic'' to deny the military the ability, for example, to shoot at suspected terrorists trying to deploy chemical, biological or nuclear weapons on a passenger train, Biden said.

``Right now, when you call in the military, the military would not be allowed to shoot-to-kill, if in fact they were approaching the weapon,'' Biden said.

Still, he said ``we shouldn't go overboard'' by giving the military too many domestic powers.

Ridge said on Fox that the discussion should take place between the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Bush's proposed Homeland Security Department, which has not yet been enacted by Congress.

``We need to be talking about military assets, in anticipation of a crisis event,'' Ridge said. ``And clearly, if you're talking about using the military, then you should have a discussion about Posse Comitatus.''

On another security issue, Ridge said the administration would accept legislation approved by a special congressional committee last week to extend by one year the Dec. 31, 2002 deadline requiring all bags to be screened at airports.

``There is a question, depending on the particular airport, as to the ability to install some of these massive machines between now and the end of the year, and I think this probably gives the new agency a little more flexibility.'' Ridge said.