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Justice Department Backs Pentagon in Challenge to Guard Base Closures

The Justice Department, which also represents the Defense Department in legal disputes over the closings, issued an opinion that said Pentagon officials do not have to obtain the approval of state governors before closing down Air National Guard facilities.

Illinois and Pennsylvania have brought lawsuits against the Defense Department over proposed closings, saying the Pentagon cannot close or alter Air Guard bases without state approval.

Air National Guard units are normally under the control of state governors unless activated for service by the president of the United States. U.S. military officials have maintained that they have full authority to make changes to guard bases and units.

The Justice Department backed the Pentagon, saying giving governors control over bases would constitute an illegal side-step of the federal law that established the base closing process.

The department’s opinion said allowing governors a say would lead “to a system in which local politics, rather than national planning, determined which facilities were closed and which were spared.”

Adrian King, an aide to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, brushed aside the Justice Department opinion.

“As far as this state’s concerned, the only opinion that matters is the opinion of a judge in a court of law and that’s why we filed the lawsuit,” King said.

The Justice Department’s decision came a day after Air National Guard and Pentagon officials clashed over the homeland security implications of the proposed base reorganization.

On Thursday, officials on both sides of the argument made their cases in a contentious hearing before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the independent committee charged with overseeing the 2005 round of U.S. domestic base closings.

Guard officials said the Pentagon’s plan to shut down 30 Air Guard bases and shift equipment and personnel among some 50 others would weaken homeland security. Guard commanders argued the decision to close bases and leave others open, but with no aircraft, would hamper their ability to quickly intercept airborne threats in some parts of the country.

Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, said the proposal could have a “ripple effect on personnel, readiness and an inability to support homeland security needs, which in our view would be irreversible.”

U.S. military officials maintained that the base closures are part of an overall reorganization that will make the military stronger without compromising security.

“Our responsibilities to support the Department of Homeland Security in their homeland security mission are not impacted adversely by this beyond a level of acceptable risk,” Peter Verga, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, told commissioners Thursday.

Commissioner Harold Gehman and other BRAC commissioners expressed skepticism of the Pentagon’s assertions.

“That’s not exactly a wholehearted endorsement, to me anyway,” said Gehman, a retired Navy admiral.

The BRAC Commission has until Sept. 8 to decide which of the Defense Department’s closure and realignment — shifts in personnel — recommendations to approve and forward to the White House. President Bush must then approve or reject the commission’s list in its entirety. If he approves the list, it is sent to Congress, which must also accept or reject the entire list. In past BRAC rounds, 85 percent of the Defense Department’s original recommendations have been approved and implemented.

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