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With WMD Attack Likely, Can the U.S. Cope?

Published: December 5, 2008
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Source: ABC News

The recent report revealing a likely biological or nuclear terror attack on the United States by 2013 has left some national security experts questioning what, if anything, a government plan to station 15,000 military troops inside the United States might do to counteract a domestic catastrophe.

The report, released by the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, determined that, because of the availability of biological weapons and, to a lesser extent, the distribution of nuclear material, "it is more likely than not" that an attack on the United States using a weapon of mass destruction will occur in the next five years.

A representative for the U.S. Northern Command told ABCNews.com that 15,000 trained military troops will be stationed inside the United States by 2011, ready to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive incidents.

"These troops are not designed to be first responders," said spokesman Mike Kucharek. "They are designed to be in place to supplement the state and local efforts."

Of the 15,000 troops, Kucharek said that 5,000 will be active-duty troops and the remaining 10,000 will be a combination of reserve forces and National Guard.

Several national security experts told ABCNews.com that they applaud the military's plan to ready the country against what they say is an inevitable terrorist attack. But others voiced concern that having an active brigade within the United States would increase the possibility of a police state and may even violate the Posse Comitatus Act, a federal law designed to limit the U.S. government's use of the military for domestic law enforcement purposes.

Kucharek said that the troops would not be doing any law enforcement or crowd control.

"They will inevitably have to act to protect themselves, but they will not be acting as law enforcement," Kucharek said.

President Bush temporarily reversed the Posse Comitatus Act after Hurricane Katrina in an attempt to restore order to the devastated New Orleans area, but his changes were eventually repealed and the act was reinstated.

Security experts said President-elect Obama will also be able to make changes to the federal law in order to deploy U.S. troops within the country and is likely to do so in the event of a terrorist attack.

The Obama camp declined to comment on how the Obama administration might use troops should such an event occur.

Can Troops Avoid Policing?

Critics of the plan, such as Kyle Olson, a homeland security specialist and president of the Olson Group, argue that despite what military officials say, the active troops will not be able to avoid policing civilian areas during a catastrophic event.

"By definition, if the troops are operating in a civilian environment they're going to find themselves policing, and that's where you run into Posse Comitatus," said Olson.

Olson also said that even if these troops are stationed in the United States they may miss the most crucial movements after an attack because of the time it will take them to travel to the scene.

"There's a golden hour -- if you've had people who have been injured, the first hour is critical in whether you'll live or die and inherently becomes the job of local responders," said Olson. "The [15,000] troops don't buy me much 2,000 miles away."

Olson said that unlike proponents of the plan, who believe local law enforcement will get overwhelmed almost immediately in the event of a terrorist attack, he believes states are more prepared to handle catastrophes than people think.

"Local responders are better prepared now than they have been in the past," said Olson. "They haven't totally frittered away the past 10 years. They're better equipped now."

"Yes, they're going to get overwhelmed, but on the other hand they're going to be the ones that are there."

Ben Friedman, a national security analyst at the Cato Institute, said putting troops in the United States will be "a waste" and may "sap their readiness for other missions."

"Domestic incidents have traditionally been handled by the police and National Guard; there aren't any instances where this has been insufficient," he said.

Friedman said that even when Bush reversed the Posse Comitatus Act and sent U.S. troops into New Orleans, the need for troops wasn't due to failures of local law enforcement but rather because of a lack of management over the entire situation.

"The danger [with this plan] is the creeping militarization of American society where we rely more and more heavily on the military to accomplish civilian tasks," he said.

But supporters of the plan say the large military response may be crucial to handling a potential disaster.

'Civil Liberties Gone Wild'

Former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman, who co-chaired the U.S. Commission on National Security before Sept. 11, 2001, refers to fears of a police state as "civil liberties gone wild."

"I can guarantee you that when the people in New Orleans after Katrina saw Army forces they weren't worried about their civil liberties, they were worried about their lives," said Rudman.

"I would assume that Obama would do [what Bush did]," said Rudman.

"If we are faced with a massive disaster it's important to have a well-trained military force with their skills in communication and medical support and food support. It would be silly not to use them, they're a valuable resource," he said.

Jerry Hauer, one of the nation's leading experts on biological and chemical terrorism and an ABC News consultant, supports the Pentagon's plan and says that those who criticize it need to face reality that any future attack on the United States will be unlike any other the country has faced.

"I'd rather enhance state and local personnel's training, but having said that I also believe that in the event of a catastrophic event like a nuclear attack it becomes very clear that the National Guard in most states would not be enough and that troops would clearly be needed," said Hauer.

He added that the 15,000 number might be conservative.

Hauer said that through exercises in various cities, including one three years ago with the Joint Chiefs of Staffs in which they reacted to a mock terrorist attack, he is certain that at least 100,000 additional troops would be necessary in the event of a biological or nuclear attack.

In the event of an attack, Hauer said that military troops would be vital in helping move injured patients, providing medical treatment and securing the city where the incident occurred.

"And you've not only got to keep roads open to get aid in but you've got to keep roads open so that people can get out, and that's very labor intensive," he said. "That's where the military plays a very important role."

"Certainly there are valid concerns [about this plan], but at some point we need to look at the reality here and see that a lot of people are going to die because we don't have the resources in place in any state or local government to cope with one of these disasters," said Hauer.

"There is not one city in the country that is even close to prepared for dealing with even a small nuclear event."

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