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Bush call for Pentagon lead in disaster response raises law enforcement issue

[JURIST] In a briefing [White House transcript] Sunday to military task force officials participating in Hurricane Rita relief efforts, President Bush suggested that the Pentagon, rather than state and local agencies, should be in charge of the response to future substantial disasters. Bush called for "greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces," saying the military is "the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice."

Giving the military greater authority to respond to disasters could, however, require changing the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 [text; NORTHCOM factsheet], which prohibits federal soldiers and National Guard troops under federal control from conducting law enforcement on US soil. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina [JURIST news archive], US lawmakers have already started to consider relaxing the Act's standards [JURIST report] and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is said to be investigating possible reforms to the legislation, considered archaic by some Pentagon officials. Supporters of Posse Comitatus counter that relaxing its terms leaves the federal government poised to embrace further centralization and militarization at home [Cato Institute commentary] and shunts aside state and local officials who are more familiar with local conditions and more connected with local communities [2001 Congressional testimony on potential legal and other problems with federalizing the National Guard during state emergencies, PDF]. Watch recorded video of a 2002 Cato Institute debate on the Posse Comitatus Act. Learn more about the history of the Posse Comitatus Act [USAF backgrounder; RAND Corporation backgrounder, PDF]. The Washington Times has more.

Previously in JURIST's Paper Chase:

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