Details were scarce Wednesday on the volunteer "civilian reserve corps" proposed by President Bush during his State of the Union address as a way to relieve strains on the military.
In his Tuesday night speech, Bush said he would work with Congress to build a civilian group analogous to the military's reserve forces that would "ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad."
The proposal appeared to differ from an Iraq Study Group recommendation that the federal government, especially the Defense and State departments and the director of national intelligence, act more aggressively to place civilians in directed assignments overseas if positions cannot be filled through normal, voluntary means.
Bush's proposal seems to resemble an initiative funded in the fiscal 2005 Intelligence Authorization Act that created a Civilian Linguistic Reserve Corps. That pilot project, which was authorized to run for three years, created a listing of civilians with critical language skills who could be called up to service by the director of national intelligence.
The White House on Wednesday did not make available any further information on the new program, and a Defense spokesman said he was not familiar with the proposal.
A State Department spokesman said he could not address the program, but said that, contrary to reports in the media, the agency is having no trouble filling posts in difficult and dangerous areas. "We've been able to fill all the positions with qualified people," he said.
The Defense Department already hires thousands of civilians for its overseas missions through extensive contracting for support and services. But contractors are bound by agreements that define the terms of work to be performed, leaving field commanders with much less flexibility than if the individuals worked directly for the department.
Bush is not the first to suggest the formation of a civilian reserve group.
Kris Alexander, who writes a blog at DefenseTech.org, part of a membership-based organization for the military community, wrote Wednesday that he presented a similar idea last year at a symposium of the Army Combined Arms Center Combat Studies Institute.
Alexander's presentation centered on the haphazard system that he said fills many of the military's nation-building stability and support slots with just 7,000 military reservists who are not recruited specifically for their skills. "In effect, we are relying on a crapshoot to determine if we have the skilled professionals we need in the military to rebuild war-shattered nations," he said, noting that the system relies on the hope that the veterans who joined the Army years before have acquired applicable skills like police work and firefighting.
Alexander suggested that many Americans would be eager to serve their country through a broader civilian reserve program. "They would train like reservists and be available for deployment like reservists," he wrote. "They would join with the understanding that they could be put in harm's way."
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, in his 2004 presidential campaign, also proposed to create a civilian reserve force as part of his vision of a "new American patriotism."
Representatives of federal employee unions on Wednesday declined to comment on Bush's proposal, saying they preferred to wait until they had more details.