President Bush's push to give the military a bigger role in responding to major disasters like Hurricane Katrina could lead to a loosening of legal limits on the use of federal troops on U.S. soil.
...Bush did not define the wider role he envisions for the military...
At question, however, is how far to push the military role, which by law may not include actions that can be defined as law enforcement _ stopping traffic, searching people, seizing property or making arrests. That prohibition is spelled out in the Posse Comitatus Act of enacted after the Civil War mainly to prevent federal troops from supervising elections in former Confederate states.
Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said, "I believe the time has come that we reflect on the Posse Comitatus Act." He advocated giving the president and the secretary of defense "correct standby authorities" to manage disasters.
...Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is reviewing a wide range of possible changes in the way the military could be used in domestic emergencies, spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said Friday. He said these included possible changes in the relationship between federal and state military authorities.
Under the existing relationship, a state's governor is chiefly responsible for disaster preparedness and response.
Governors can request assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If federal armed forces are brought in to help, they do so in support of FEMA...
Di Rita said Rumsfeld has not made recommendations to Bush, but among the issues he is examining is the viability of the Posse Comitatus Act. Di Rita called it one of the "very archaic laws" from a different era in U.S. history that limits the Pentagon's flexibility in responding to 21st century domestic crises.
Another such law, Di Rita said, is the Civil War-era Insurrection Act, which Bush could have invoked to waive the law enforcement restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act. That would have enabled him to use either National Guard soldiers or active-duty troops _ or both _ to quell the looting and other lawlessness that broke out in New Orleans.
The Insurrection Act lets the president call troops into federal action inside the United States whenever "unlawful obstructions, combinations or assemblages _ or rebellion against the authority of the United States _ make it impracticable to enforce the laws" in any state.
The political problem in Katrina was that Bush would have had to impose federal command over the wishes of two governors _ Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi _ who made it clear they wanted to retain state control...