Washington Post: Northern Command to lead domestic terror response

The Washington Post reports Aug. 8 that the Pentagon “has devised its first-ever war plans for guarding against and responding to terrorist attacks in the United States, envisioning 15 potential crisis scenarios and anticipating several simultaneous strikes around the country, according to officers who drafted the plans.”

The plans are classified, and the Post mostly relies on anonymous sources at Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, where they were developed. They supposedly “outline a variety of possible roles for quick-reaction forces estimated at as many as 3,000 ground troops per attack, a number that could easily grow depending on the extent of the damage and the abilities of civilian response teams. The possible scenarios range from ‘low end,’ relatively modest crowd-control missions to ‘high-end,’ full-scale disaster management after catastrophic attacks such as the release of a deadly biological agent or the explosion of a radiological device, several officers said. Some of the worst-case scenarios involve three attacks at the same time, in keeping with a Pentagon directive earlier this year ordering Northcom, as the command is called, to plan for multiple simultaneous attacks.”

“In my estimation, [in the event of] a biological, a chemical or nuclear attack in any of the 50 states, the Department of Defense is best positioned – of the various eight federal agencies that would be involved – to take the lead,” said Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the head of Northcom, one of the few sources to speak on the record.

The plans are said to consist of two main documents. One, CONPLAN 2002, is reportedly an “umbrella document” identifying various threat scenarios and response strategies. The other, CONPLAN 0500, deals with the specifics of the response operations. CONPLAN 2002 has passed a review by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and is due to go soon to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top aides for approval. CONPLAN 0500 is still undergoing final drafting. (CONPLAN stands for “concept plan,” generally an abbreviated version of an OPLAN, or “operations plan,” which specifies forces and timelines for movement into a combat zone.)

Since Northcom’s inception in October 2002, its headquarters staff has grown to about 640, making it larger than the Southern Command, although smaller than the regional commands for Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. Writes the Post: “A brief tour late last month of Northcom’s operations center at Peterson Air Force Base found officers monitoring not only aircraft and ship traffic around the United States but also the Discovery space shuttle mission, the National Scout Jamboree in Virginia, several border surveillance operations and a few forest firefighting efforts.”

Pentagon authorities have reportedly rejected the idea of creating large standing units dedicated to homeland missions, opting instead for a “dual-use” approach, “drawing on a common pool of troops trained both for homeland and overseas assignments. Particular reliance is being placed on the National Guard, which is expanding a network of 22-member civil support teams to all states and forming about a dozen 120-member regional response units. Congress last year also gave the Guard expanded authority under Title 32 of the U.S. Code to perform such homeland missions as securing power plants and other critical facilities. But the Northcom commander can quickly call on active-duty forces as well. On top of previous powers to send fighter jets into the air, Keating earlier this year gained the authority to dispatch Navy and Coast Guard ships to deal with suspected threats off U.S. coasts. He also has immediate access to four active-duty Army battalions based around the country, officers here said.”

Reference is made to secretive “homeland” military exercises code-named Vital Archer, involving troops in lead roles. In contrast, homeland exercises featuring troops in supporting roles are widely publicized.

Towards the end, the Post does mention concerns of civil liberties that the Northern Command operations could violate the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which “restricts the use of troops in domestic law enforcement.” (It is actually generally held to ban it outright.) “But Pentagon authorities have told Congress they see no need to change the law. According to military lawyers here, the dispatch of ground troops would most likely be justified on the basis of the president’s authority under Article 2 of the Constitution to serve as commander in chief and protect the nation. The Posse Comitatus Act exempts actions authorized by the Constitution.” But the Post also noted that “Keating left the door open to seeking an amendment of the Posse Comitatus Act.”

We have noted before that plans for domestic military rule or martial law, suspension of constitutional rights and mass detainment were drawn up in the Reagan era by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and then-National Security Council operative Lt. Col. Oliver North. In 1984, FEMA carried out a series of “readiness exercises” (dubbed REX 84 ALPHA) in preparation for the mass detainments. The secret plans were revealed in the 1987 Congressional hearings on the “Contragate” scandal. Then, the emergency scenario was a massive wave of refugees and domestic protest sparked by a US invasion of Central America. As Diana Reynolds writes for The Public Eye, a watchdog newsletter on the right-wing:

Since the advent of changes which took place during the Reagan regime, America has been a presidential directive away from a civil security state of emergency which, if ever enacted, could create a constitutional crisis equal in severity to the American Civil War.

A national state of emergency can be declared by a concurrent resolution of both houses of Congress or by the President in the case of natural disasters, nuclear war, a massive mobilization in anticipation of an enemy attack on U.S. territory, or domestic civil unrest.

A disturbing shift in policy occurred during the Reagan years which could have profound consequences with respect to civil liberties. Whereas civil defense planning in the past had focused on disaster relief, the national security focus of the Reagan administration meant implementing new ways to expand police powers in times of nuclear war, domestic unrest, or civil disorder.

This passge was written shortly before 9-11. When do we decide that we are already in a constitutional crisis?

See our last post on the War on Terrorism’s threat to democracy.