Pentagon seeks more authority to fight domestic terrorism
February 1, 1999
From Correspondent Carl Rochelle
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary William Cohen wants a permanent task force created to coordinate the military reaction to the next case of domestic terrorism.
The United States already came face-to-face with terrorism on its own soil with the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Equally chilling to defense planners is the threat of weapons of mass destruction like the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack in a Tokyo subway.
"One of the greatest threats we're doing to face in the future will be chemical and biological attacks -- and likely to take place nearly simultaneously in multiple places," Cohen said Monday. "And so a good deal of planning has to be undertaken."
The U.S. military already trains its forces to deal with weapons of mass destruction, but new Pentagon plans call for a permanent task force with a commander-in-chief for U.S. operations.
That prospect sends chills through groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"It's hard to imagine that a soldier with a suspect in the sights of his M-1 tank is well-positioned to protect that person's civil liberties, or to protect the civil liberties of the people who are around that person," argued Gregory Nojeim of the ACLU.
The Pentagon counters that the primary role of the new terrorism task force would be to provide transportation, medical and decontamination facilities and food and water -- something that the military already does in disasters.
"The real issue is how can you establish command-control arrangements so that the people are comfortable that we're doing our appropriate role and that other agencies are able to maintain control over the situation -- that's what we want," explained Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre.
The director of a soon-to-be-released study on the terrorist threat to the United States said he believes citizens would want the military to step in.
"There's no question in my mind that the American people would absolutely insist that the military for which we paid trillions of dollars for decade after decade should be here to defend our United States at home," pointed out Fred Iklé of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Pentagon officials said their equipment and personnel are already paid for and available. The alternative, they argued, is to equip, train and maintain a civilian force to put on standby -- which would be extremely costly.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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