Posse Comitatus


"The Pentagon may be the only agency of the federal government that George Bush believes in, so it's little wonder that he wants it to keep expanding its power, not only overseas but right here at home. Ever since Hurricane Rita, the one consistent message out of Bush's mouth has been: Bring in the Pentagon...

"The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the President from using "any part of the Army of the United States... for the purposes of executing the laws" unless expressly authorized by the Constitution or an act of Congress. Regulations governing its enforcement explicitly rule out the "direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other siilar activity."

"Aside from a few departures, the line has been clear: The military deals with overseas threats and cannot engage in domestic law enforcement...

"Over the years, Congress and the courts have carved out several exceptions to the law.

"First, the military can already provide disaster relief by sending in supplies and equipment or providing humanitarian assistance. Courts have rules this kind of involvement as "passive," since it doesn't grant the military coercive power over the citizenry.

"Second, the National Guard, when it is under the command of a state governor, can engage in law enforcement. And the Coast Guard is exempt.

"Third, the President can waive the law by invoking the Insurrection Act, which grants him powers to put down lawlessness, rebellion, and resistance by states to the enforcement of federal laws.

"Presidents have used troops in a variety of domestic settings: dubiously to intervene in labor strikes and legitimately to enforce the civil rights laws when state governments were refusing to do so.

"But the Bush Administration has gone to new lengths. It has used troops for immigration patrol and drug interdiction. And ever since 9/11, it has pushed hard for amending the Posse Comitatus Act...

"Like its reaction to its incompetence prior to 9/11, the Bush Administration is responding to its colossal Katrina screwups by flailing away at our own cherished civil liberties. And just as the harsh measures of the Patriot Act are not necessary to protect us, the revision of Posse Comitatus is not the answer...

"Timothy Edgar of the ACLU: "It makes very little sense to put the Pentagon in charge of disaster relief when we have a whole new Department of Homeland Security that's supposed to do this"...

""That would be a real departure for our system of government and one that's not at all needed," he says. "Posse Comitatus lays out a fairly strict and basic principle of democracy: Our active duty soldiers are not to be used for internal security for police functions. The danger is that active duty soldiers are not trained in dealing with the local community and they are not accountable to the local community in the way the police are or even the National Guard is."

Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights agrees. "What we're talking about is having people who are trained to kill patrol our streets rather than peace officers," he says. "That's a pretty bad sign. They are not trained in constitutional rights or the Fourth Amendment, but are trrained to shoot first and ask questions later."

"Ratner also is concerned that there would be "no real accountability system, no ability to sue, no citizen review boards."...

"Colonel Patrick Finnegan, who is now dean of the academic board at the US Military Academy, shares that concern. "The military is designed and trained to defend our country by fighting and killing the enemy, usually faceless, with no individual rights," he said in 2003, when he taught law at the academy...

"But Bush and Rumsfeld are pushing on. They have an ally in John Warner, the Virginia Republican, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. He has wanted to amend the act since 9/11 and may introduce legislation soon" ("Preserve Posse Comitatus." The Progressive, Nov. 2005: 8-10).


Colby Glass, MLIS