KWAME HOLMAN: At Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, construction workers were finishing the last touches on the headquarters for the new United States Northern Command. Next week, this base will make history as the home of the first American military command with the primary responsibility of conducting homeland security missions in the continental United States. Its reach also extends to cover Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean basin.
GENERAL RALPH EBERHART: This command will be one-stop shopping in terms of providing military support to other federal agencies and to local responders.
KWAME HOLMAN: General Ralph Eberhart is the Pentagon's choice to lead the new command.
GENERAL RALPH EBERHART: We draw up plans that show how we would assist anywhere from flood to fires, to a terrorist attack; to, God forbid, a chemical, biological, nuclear-type weapons attack, weapons of mass destruction.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Northern Command will centralize the control of the kinds of homeland security missions the military performed after September 11 when fighter jets patrolled over American cities, military cargo planes flew rescue missions to New York City, and a Navy hospital ship was dispatched to New York Harbor to treat the wounded. John Brinkerhoff, a retired Army colonel who also worked at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says the foreign-based attacks on September 11 illustrated an urgent need for a domestic military command.
JOHN BRINKERHOFF: The United States itself is now for the first time since the War of 1812 a theater of war. That means that we should apply, in my view, the same kind of command structure in the United States that we apply in other theaters of war.
OFFICIAL: Ladies and gentlemen, please be calm, take your clothes off, clean yourselves down. We're here to help you.
KWAME HOLMAN: To perform its missions, the Northern Command would be able to call on units from each of four armed services.
OFFICIAL: Let's go.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the case of a chemical or biological attack, the Marine Corps' Chemical Biological Incident Response Force might deploy.
RESPONDER: Who is senior man here?
OFFICIAL: You two come with me.
KWAME HOLMAN: This 400-member unit, based an hour's drive south of Washington D.C., was created in 1996 specifically to respond to weapons of mass destruction attacks on civilians. Commanding Officer Colonel Thomas Hammes:
COLONEL THOMAS HAMMES: Essentially, we're to back up civilian first responders in a life-saving role. Our job is to enter a contaminated environment, extract the casualties, decontaminate them, and hand them over to the civilian medical service for final treatment.
CHIEF JOHN DARBY: We basically have the same skill sets that most fire departments around the city do have.
KWAME HOLMAN: Marine Reservist John Darby is a local senior firefighter when he's not on active duty.
CHIEF JOHN DARBY: It's the quantities of people that we bring, you know, to the incident, and I think that's the biggest thing that we have is the numbers of people.
OFFICIAL: The two teams and yourself have leadership…
KWAME HOLMAN: But relying on the military for such traditionally civilian duties has its critics.
AMY SMITHSON: In order to make a life- saving difference in a chemical attack, you've got to be there with your gear, working with victims within a matter of minutes, not hours.
KWAME HOLMAN: Amy Smithson is a public policy analyst at the Henry Stimson Center, a non- profit research organization. She says communities depend on the quick response of local fire departments and HAZMAT teams in the event of a catastrophic attack, and money spent on assets like the Marine unit would be better directed toward beefing up local first responders.
AMY SMITHSON: It's the locals that have to be best trained and equipped; they are the people that are going to save lives. That was proved on September 11, and proved many times over in any number of other disasters.
BATTALION CHIEF MICHAEL FARRI: We don't look at ourselves as a law enforcement agency.
KWAME HOLMAN: Michael Farri is a battalion chief in Alexandria, Virginia's fire department, which exercised with the Marine unit. He likes the fact that the chemical and biological response force could provide policing as well as rescue functions.
BATTALION CHIEF MICHAEL FARRI: They bring a law enforcement agency group with them and they have no problem if somebody needs to be restrained with handcuffs or flex cuffs or whatever to keep them from going from the hot zone to a cool zone; whereas the fire department, we are not geared to do that.
KWAME HOLMAN: So that's a benefit?
BATTALION CHIEF MICHAEL FARRI: Absolutely. I think it is a benefit. You have better containment, and better control.
KWAME HOLMAN: Colonel Hammes says his Marines are trained to handle uncooperative people.
COLONEL THOMAS HAMMES: Obviously, first, we try to just talk to them. If they're really hysterical, there's some simple techniques from this program called Marine Martial Arts, that teaches various martial arts skills; there are common techniques that police also use to provide pain compliance-- no permanent damage, just enough to get your attention, and allows us to control you. If you still won't, then we can control in flex cuffs, and then we'll flex cuff decontaminate you. And if you're calm at that point, we turn you loose. If you're still not calm, then the police will be asked to give us a hand.
TIMOTHY EDGAR: I think that just shows one of the potential dangers for mission creep.
KWAME HOLMAN: Timothy Edgar is legislative counsel in the Washington, DC, office of the American Civil Liberties Union. He says the prospect of the military engaging in law enforcement is problematic. He points to the case of a military unit that helped patrol the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas, resulting in the death of American citizen Ezequiel Hernandez.
TIMOTHY EDGAR: Unfortunately, there was an incident in 1997 where a young Marine shot and killed a student who was herding his family's goats out on the border. That's not the kind of position we want to put our troops in. We want to make sure our troops are fighting wars -- that they're not put in the position of having to make those kinds of judgments that are better left to police departments that have the kind of training to respect constitutional rights and to use minimal force, rather than overwhelming force to defeat the enemy.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Defense Department says any deployment of the Northern Command will be guided by the principles of the Posse Comitatus Act. Congress created that legislation during the Civil War era. It prohibited the army from enforcing civilian laws unless specifically authorized. Posse Comitatus was a reaction to how federal troops had been used.
Local southern sheriffs used them to track down fugitive slaves before the Civil War. Later, soldiers protected freed slaves from vigilantes, kept the peace after disputed elections, and even guarded polling stations during the presidential election of 1876. General Eberhart spoke to NewsHour reporter Dan Sagalyn.
GENERAL RALPH EBERHART: As a law, it's something we have to be, one, familiar with and, two, abide with, and that's certainly what we'll do. So it's essentially, it establishes lanes in the road, of tasking; missions, if you will.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Timothy Edgar says the Act has loopholes and is not sufficient to protect civil liberties.
TIMOTHY EDGAR: The Posse Comitatus Act and other laws have a number of exceptions in them, and those exceptions can permit the military to be involved in law enforcement with creative legal interpretation, and that's not the kind of thing we want. We need guidelines that are based on functions and that will prevent the military from being involved in those routine activities.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Northern Command's leader says he'll have more than 200 people focusing on domestic intelligence. They would receive information about potential threats from local, state and national agencies.
GENERAL RALPH EBERHART: I'd like to get information in terms of that they've seen something suspicious, so if we're starting to see a lot of suspicious things or there's a pattern across the country, or if it's all at dams, per se, or all at hydroelectric plants, that, to me, starts to paint a picture of where we might be vulnerable or what the enemy is considering doing.
TIMOTHY EDGAR: Well, it raises a lot of questions. There was a program during the '50s and '60s where the Pentagon was involved in receiving intelligence information about protesters. It was called Continental United States based on some of our exaggerated fears of leftist movements in the U.S. That's not the kind of thing we would want our military to be involved in. They obviously need to have access to the information which is important for them to do their job. But we don't want the military, certainly, to be spying on Americans for their political activities.
GENERAL RALPH EBERHART: We are not going to be out there spying on people. We get information from people who do.
KWAME HOLMAN: Retired Air Force Colonel Randall Larsen sees challenges ahead for the new Northern Command.
COL. RANDALL LARSEN (Ret.): There is going to be a problem. They're going to have to pull back on the reins a little bit. You know, in the military, they teach you to lean forward, to be prepared, to go out and do the plans.
KWAME HOLMAN: Larsen directs the Institute for Homeland Security at the consulting group Anser Corporation. He supports creating the new command, but says it must show restraint.
COL. RANDALL LARSEN (Ret.): And so it's going to be difficult for a four-star general, what we used to call CYNCS, we now call Combatant Commanders, for them not to be charging forward to go out and do the mission they see in front of them a major attack occurs on a U.S. city like a tactical nuclear weapon goes off in some city, that general is going to be starting to move airplanes and assets and resources.
We realize that, first of all, the mayor is going to have to call the governor; the governor is going to have to call the president; he'll act, the president will activate the federal response plan, and part of that will be the military in a supportive role. So it is a little bit different for the general to have to sit back and all of their staff and all of their careers they've trained to step forward.
KWAME HOLMAN: Retired National Guard Brigadier General David McGinnis says the National Guard should be the first military responders inside the homeland. Otherwise, he says, it may be too tempting simply to give active duty forces carte blanche during a major disaster.
BRIG. GENERAL DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): My concern is that a situation will happen; there will be a large catastrophe somewhere, and the commander will come in and say, "I'm taking control." The sheriffs, the mayors will say, "no, you're not." And he's going to say, "I'm declaring this a national defense area under the existing statute, and I'm taking control of this area," and move his troops in and push everybody out, take control of the area.
GENERAL RALPH EBERHART: There may be situations if we ever got into a major chemical biological nuclear attack problem where we may, in fact, be in charge. And the only way I can see that happening is one of two ways: First, it's become so bad that the lead federal agency in working with the state governors say, you know, "we give up. We do not have the wherewithal to deal with this. We need not only federal support and federal help here, but we need the federal forces to take the lead." And then the president and the Secretary of Defense would have to decide, "yes, that is appropriate."
KWAME HOLMAN: As of next week, the Northern Command, with an eventual staff of 500 and a $70 million budget, officially begins a new era in the military's role in homeland security.