Congress Moves to Expand Military Involvement in Law Enforcement

September 14, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Warning of new potential for federal law enforcement abuse, the American Civil Liberties Union today said that a little-noticed provision of a defense bill would authorize even more military intervention in civilian law enforcement.

The provision is buried in the Defense Authorization bill, which is scheduled for a final vote this week in both the House and Senate. The ACLU said the provision would provide a new exception to a century-old prohibition — known as the Posse Comitatus Act — against the military taking on responsibility for domestic law enforcement.

Ironically, the vote on expanding the military’s role comes as Congress prepares to launch a new investigation into the role of military units in the final assault on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, six years ago.

“As the new Waco allegations demonstrate, the military must not be turned against the American people,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “But time and time again, Congress authorizes just that by expanding the military’s role in domestic law enforcement.”

The new proposed exception to the Posse Comitatus Act would further expand a controversial measure adopted by Congress in 1996 that permitted military involvement in “emergencies” involving chemical and biological weapons crimes.

Under that new measure, which was proposed by the Defense Department, the military would be authorized to deal with crimes involving any chemical or biological weapons — or any other weapon of mass destruction — regardless of whether there is an “emergency.” In addition, the new proposal would lift requirements that the military be reimbursed for the cost of its intervention, thus likely increasing the number of requests for military assistance.

“Under this new provision,” Nojeim said, “the mere threat of an act of terrorism would justify calling in military units. That represents a loophole large enough to drive a battalion of army tanks through.”

The defense authorization bill would also require the Pentagon to develop a plan to assign military personnel to assist Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to “respond to threats to national security posed by entry into the U.S. of terrorists or drug traffickers.”

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