Pentagon juggles politics of creating North American command

As it knits together a new command for the defense of North America, the Pentagon is having to unravel a tangle of special interests, ranging from Canada and Congress to the Coast Guard and the Governors. No wonder it's taking so long. For 50 years, the Pentagon has divided the world among a handful of four-star officers: the regional commanders in chief, whose influence in their areas of the globe has grown so great that The Washington Post, in a series of articles a year before Sept. 11, likened them to the proconsuls of the Roman Empire. But throughout those 50 years, no "CINC"--as they are always called in the Pentagon--has had authority over Canada, Mexico, or the continental United States itself.

That is about to change. On September 11, the United States itself became the battleground. So, although recent leaks show that the details are still being worked out, the Defense Department has resolved to establish a new "Northern Command."

The secret to the success of the existing U.S. regional CINCs has been as much about adapting to local conditions as about imposing a common model. Even Rome's theoretically autocratic proconsuls had to tread carefully around local sensibilities, and their U.S. heirs are little different.

In the 1999 air war in Kosovo, for example, Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark--who was simultaneously the U.S. CINC for Europe and the supreme allied commander for NATO--spent as much time cajoling the 19 diverse allies as he did commanding the air war. But as balky as, say, the president of France can be, he at least doesn't represent millions of registered U.S. voters. Any CINC for the new Northern Command, on the other hand, will have to deal every day with people who do--the governors, senators, and representatives from all 50 states.

Or, as retired Army Col. David McIntyre, a consultant to the Institute for Homeland Security at the Arlington, Va.-based think tank ANSER, put it, "We're talking about deploying forces to people with considerable political influence." So, as politically complex as military operations overseas have been, he said, "we have never had the situation where we had to negotiate with Congressmen and governors."

Nor would a new CINC have just the U.S. homeland to worry about. Any Northern Command must cope with Canada. Commerce, geography, and (unlike the United States and Mexico) a long-standing alliance inextricably link the two countries. But this intimacy does not imply any abdication of sovereignty by Ottawa.

"The Canadian government would view the principal responsibility for the protection of Canadian territory to be that of the Canadian armed forces," John Manley, Canada's deputy prime minister, gently but firmly emphasized in an interview with National Journal. Manley is the counterpart to U.S. Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. When it comes to the security of North America as a whole, what Manley means is--no militarization without representation.

Mexican representatives did not grant interviews with National Journal in time for this story, but America's southern neighbor will also be consulted in the arrangements for the new command. Those discussions could entail all sorts of contentious issues such as borders, immigration, and Mexico's long wariness of its "colossus to the north."

In short, as ticklish as any other regional commander's job may be, a northern commander would have to operate at an even higher octave of political sensitivity. No wonder the Pentagon is still pondering exactly how to organize this new command. In fact, the Pentagon has repeatedly passed up several high-profile opportunities to announce a plan, McIntyre noted. And, as of his March 8 interview with National Journal, Manley said: "Decisions at the U.S. level have not been taken, so we really don't have a proposition before us." The Canadians are no worse off than the United States' own Congress, which is wondering, too, when the Pentagon will divulge its plan: "We don't have any clarity as to the details," said one Hill staffer. "We've been anticipating a briefing any day now for several weeks."

The new command is supposed to be in place by Oct. 1. Both the White House and the Pentagon declined National Journal's requests for comment. And a leaked "terms of reference" memorandum from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs leaves open more questions than it answers. It defines the command's geographical boundaries, but not its relations with state, local, or foreign governments, or even with the U.S. Coast Guard. The continued uncertainty reflects the jungle of diplomatic, political, and military considerations the administration has to cut through before it can emerge with a workable plan. What follows is the first outline of how the Northern Command might look, as pieced together by experts in and out of government.

What's in a CINC?

What would a homeland "commander in chief" command? That is the crucial question that the military and civilian sides of government must answer. The underlying problem is that military and civilian officials--especially at the state and local levels--have distinctly different ideas about how the new authority should work.

History is littered with defeated forces that never quite cleared up who was in charge. On December 7, 1941, Japanese raiders caught U.S. forces off guard in large part because the separate commanders for the Army and Navy in Hawaii failed to coordinate their activities. After the war, the Pentagon established "unified commands" precisely to end such confusion. Under that system, one officer controls all forces in a given geographic region, such as the Pacific, or in a given functional area, such as long-range transportation. But 60 years after Pearl Harbor, the defense of the continental United States is divided among no fewer than five different four-star officers and six organizations.

Most prominent of the organizations is the Joint Forces Command. For two years, it has operated the military's standing Joint Task Force for Civil Support--beefed up since 9/11--that assists civilian authorities in the event of a terrorist attack. Its Norfolk, Va., headquarters is close enough to Washington to make it easy for its commander and staff to come to the Pentagon for policy meetings, yet is far enough out of the potential blast zone to ensure its safety if the worst were to occur in the capital. Location and capabilities make "JFCOM" the likely core of a future Northern Command. But other nodes of Pentagon power would also have to be pulled into the new command.

The U.S. Space Command in Colorado, for instance, would have to be in the mix. Its chief is responsible for protecting stateside computer systems. That same officer defends U.S. and Canadian airspace, in his other role as commander in chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. But it's the CINC of Joint Forces Command who is responsible for defending land and sea. Except where he isn't: The commander in chief for the Pacific, who protects Hawaii and Alaska, also hunts drug smugglers off the West Coast; the Southern Command CINC in Florida does the same along the Gulf Coast and in the Caribbean; and both of those commanders share their responsibility with the U.S. Coast Guard, which is not even part of the Defense Department, and whose commandant sits in Washington, D.C.

"The military missions were scattered, and still are," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Donald Edwards, who led a February 2001 study for the Pentagon that called for a single homeland commander but that sidestepped the question of where the commander should rank in the military hierarchy. Edwards did not dare ask then for a full CINC. "There was ... so much resistance to it," he recalled. "That, of course, has all become ancient history after Sept. 11."

So what exactly should a Northern Command include? The "terms of reference" memo gives it JFCOM's Joint Task Force-Civil Support and all of NORAD's air defense authority. The command will cover Canada, Mexico, and the lower 48 states, which currently are not under any CINC; Alaska (but not Hawaii) from CINC Pacific; and the waters 500 miles out from the U.S. coast, including the northern Carribean, now under CINC South.

It does make geographic sense that the same officer should control the open-ocean approaches to North America, the coastline, and ports inshore, as well as the airspace overhead. But should Northern Command be primarily a headquarters, with units assigned to it as needed for specific operations, as is currently the case with NORAD? Or should it have units under its direct control, as most CINC-doms do? Or should it instead serve as a strategic reserve, a "holding pen" for all uncommitted units based in the continental United States, the way Joint Forces Command now does--which would give a Northern Command CINC far more resources, but also far more responsibilities and distractions?

The outfit that's in the most complex position is the Coast Guard. A legal hybrid, it is both a law enforcement agency and a military service. The Guard answers to the Transportation Secretary in peacetime but to the Defense Department in time of war--if the President decides to make the switch, which George W. Bush has not done since Sept. 11.

The Coast Guard works closely with the Pacific and Southern Commands on drug interdictions, even putting "Law Enforcement Detachments" aboard Navy ships to conduct searches and seizures so that the legalities are all obeyed. But since World War II, the Coast Guard's main link with the military has been to provide specialized assistance to the Navy overseas. Now it's the Navy that is supporting the Coast Guard in home waters.

"That relationship has been reversed," said Charles Neimeyer, dean of academics at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where military thinkers are working through the complex implications of a new homeland command. "No existing command-and-control organization is completely sufficient."

A Northern Command could clarify the Coast Guard's place. It could also give the service a powerful patron. It is an open secret that many Coasties resent having to fight for funding against popular transportation programs--highways and airports, for example. They also resent having to wage the fight on those programs' home turf: the congressional Transportation committees. The Coast Guard would welcome anything that put its budgets before the sympathetic, and fiscally flush, Defense committees.

Still, it is almost impossible to imagine the civilian side of government giving up all its say over the Coast Guard, which also serves such entirely peaceful purposes as maintaining navigation buoys, cleaning up oil spills, and rescuing storm-tossed sailors. The Coast Guard will never be unambiguously part of the Pentagon.

But at least the Coast Guard is unambiguously part of the federal government. Many of the players in "homeland defense" are not. And the greatest single challenge is how to bring in, rather than push away, the United States' greatest single ally: Canada.

The Canadian Dilemma

"O Canada," runs the refrain of the Canadian national anthem, "we stand on guard for thee." But Washington's idea for a Northern Command, and the whole question of "homeland security" in the wake of Sept. 11, underscores an old ambiguity in the U.S.-Canadian relationship: It is often less than clear just who is standing guard for whom.

At its best, it is the ambiguity between two old friends who can hardly say anymore where "mine" ends and "yours" begins. This intimacy extends to intelligence, law enforcement, the military, even the law itself. When cases potentially affecting the United States come before Canadian judges, said Ward Elcock, director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, "our courts have accepted [that] if it's a threat to the security of Canada's closest ally, it's a threat to the security of Canada." And on the morning of September 11, when the alarms went off in the Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., command post of NORAD, the senior officer on duty was not the U.S. chief, but his executive officer, Maj. Gen. Eric Findley--a Canadian.

Underneath this intimate relationship, however, is a persistent Canadian fear of being smothered by the United States. Its extreme expression is the idea that Canadian defense is really a "defense against help." Rather than assembling forces strong enough to deter Canada's enemies from attacking, the important thing is to forestall Canada's friends from assisting too intrusively.

Throughout the Cold War, Canadians often felt compelled to spend heavily against threats that they didn't take seriously but the Americans did, such as preventing Soviet incursions in the Arctic. "If you didn't do it, the Americans were going to do it for you," and on their own terms, summed up Robert Huebert, associate director of the University of Calgary's Center for Military and Strategic Studies. Canada's "defense-against-U.S.-help" school peaked in the 1970s. But in the wake of Sept. 11, said Huebert, "we're starting to see renewed concern."

Canadian concern is understandable. The war on terrorism has prompted Washington to take an unprecedented interest in the internal affairs--security, intelligence, law enforcement, even finance--of countries around the world. Canada is just next door. And the cooperation that the United States is seeking globally since Sept. 11 has long been on offer in Canada.

"We've been here since the 1940s," said Stuart Sterm, the FBI's legal attache in Ottawa. The exchange of liaison officers and intelligence information between the two countries is constant, and it has helped bust everyone from Hell's Angels to phony telemarketers. "There's very little that's not shared with them," said John Lewis, retired chief of the FBI's national security division. "[It's] one of the closest relationships that we have."

And it is getting closer. The two countries will soon swap customs inspectors, sending agents to each other's major ports. Since 1996, customs, immigration, and law enforcement agents from both countries have formed standing teams to fight cross-border crime, and since Sept. 11, the Canadians have invited the United States even deeper into their country.

"Immediately after the attacks," said Inspector Peter Thompson, chief of the organized-crime branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, "the FBI in particular was engaged in an investigative capacity with our key enforcement units in Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa." Now the Mounties will make this U.S. participation deep inside Canada permanent, when they formalize the Integrated National Security Teams--aptly acronymed as "INSET."

U.S.-Canadian cooperation also extends to disaster relief, which has become a part of national security in an era when terrorists seek weapons of mass destruction. Emergency officials from Canada's provinces regularly confer, plan, and train with their counterparts in northern U.S. states. Canadians still fondly recall the influx of U.S. electrical crews and generators after ice storms downed power lines across central Canada in 1998: "The aid and assistance was tremendous," said Dr. James Young, Ontario's chief of emergency preparedness.

U.S. National Guard troops from northern-tier states even train with the Canadian military. "We used to trade units back and forth," said retired Gen. Edwards, who was the adjutant general of Vermont. "The Canadians are great folks."

The NORAD Model

The centerpiece of this continental collaboration is NORAD. Deep under Cheyenne Mountain, U.S. and Canadian officers literally sit side by side in North America's most secure command post. Their screens display data from U.S. and Canadian radars, and their radios dispatch U.S. and Canadian fighter aircraft, all but interchangeably. By treaty, NORAD's commander is always a U.S. officer reporting directly to the President, and the deputy commander is always a Canadian officer reporting directly to the prime minister.

But NORAD also shows the limits of collaboration. It actually originated as a form of "defense against help." In the 1950s, it became clear that U.S. forces would need to intercept any incoming Soviet bombers as far from the United States as possible--sovereign airspace be damned. Canadians decided that only a joint headquarters would guarantee them a say in the air war that might rage over their heads.

For the past few years, Canadian nervousness about a proposed U.S. national missile defense, which would probably have its nerve center at the Cheyenne Mountain command post, has prompted speculation that Ottawa would pull out altogether. Fortunately, NORAD is still standing. But throughout its history, noted Joseph Jockel, director of Canadian studies at St. Lawrence University, the binational command has had "emergency procedures for the United States to act alone and for Canada to stand down." In the event of a disagreement, all of those Canadians in Cheyenne Mountain can be replaced with U.S. personnel.

That crucial capability to opt out runs through the entire Washington-Ottawa relationship. Few navies work as closely together as the United States' and Canada's, and although there is no naval NORAD, Canadian ships regularly train and sail with American battle groups for months at a time, obeying a U.S. admiral's orders. But the Canadians operate under rules of engagement set in Ottawa, not in Washington, and if a dispute comes to the wire, they have every legal right to sail away. As closely intertwined as the two militaries are--at sea, on land, in the air--they remain two distinct strands, strands that can be separated at a moment's notice.

"The fundamental issue is, under whose command-and-control are Canadian forces serving? And I think Canadians would expect that should be a Canadian," said Deputy Prime Minister Manley. "It's not a total integration."

For all the intimacy of the two countries' collaboration, Canadians will not let the Pentagon command their military any more than they will let the FBI conduct arrests on their soil. That emphasis on sovereignty implies--though the polite Canadians won't insist outright--that any new Northern Command must retain NORAD's two-headed nature, with a U.S. commander and a Canadian deputy, both reporting directly to their respective capitals.

"The NORAD architecture is important to us, in that it reflects the binational command," Manley said. If the United States wants Canada to participate in the new Northern Command, the Pentagon had best keep the maple leafers' favorite feature from the old NORAD command.

A Homeland Divided

Two-headed structures such as NORAD make the military nervous. War is hard enough to orchestrate without giving half your force the option to opt out. But as complex as the chain of command between Canada and the United States can be, at least there is one. The final challenge facing a Northern Command is how to work with a whole array of federal, state, and local civilians for whom "command" is an altogether alien idea.

For while the reader might be forgiven for imagining that a homeland defense command would actually command the defense of the homeland, there is simply no way that it ever will. Civil libertarians may fret about a loss of civilian control over law enforcement, but the reality is that there is no danger--and no hope--that a single mastermind (diabolical or otherwise) will ever sit down in a secret control room somewhere and orchestrate the security of the continent. America just doesn't work that way.

And the military does not want it to. In fact, elected politicians historically had to push the Pentagon into taking on domestic roles, whether in the war on drugs, border control, or training local firefighters and police for anti-terrorism efforts. Driven both by a high-minded devotion to civilian control over the military and by a pragmatic reluctance to take on messy domestic missions, the military in general scrupulously adheres to the spirit of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids the U.S. military from enforcing U.S. laws.

The much-loopholed law, however, does not apply outside U.S. borders or, technically, to the Navy at all. Yet in counterdrug operations, the law's spirit is still observed-the military's Pacific and Southern Commands control the search for smugglers' vessels, but a Coast Guard headquarters takes command for the actual interception and arrest.

Even if the military wanted to run homeland security, it can't. Too many other agencies are in the way; too many established structures populate the 50 states-and those structures, frankly, are better suited to the nature of American government than a top-down military command.

"If you look at the emergency management system in this country, it actually provides a much better framework," said George Foresman, an adviser to Virginia's governor. It is a system based on interstate compacts, computer networks, and informal collaboration. Civilian agencies, especially at the state and local levels, prefer such a consultative, consensual, bottom-up leadership style. Even in a wildfire, earthquake, terrorist bombing, or other such crisis, the standard template--the "Incident Command System"--puts the local fire chief at the scene in charge and firmly places everyone else, including federal officials, in a supporting role. And Pentagon officials emphasize they are happy to keep their assigned role: not in charge of the response, not even in charge of the federal part of it, but serving as a rich reserve of assets and expertise for other agencies to draw on.

In fact, on U.S. soil, the Pentagon does not even control the entire military. The first troops to respond to most disasters are from the National Guard, whose officers answer to their state governors, not to federal authorities, unless and until the President specifically calls up a given unit. Even the Guard troops currently on duty in the nation's airports, although paid from federal funds, are under state command. This month, Bush did decide to federalize some 1,600 Guard troops to beef up security on the borders--and promptly got a letter from all 50 state commanders, the adjutants--general, protesting that the states should be in charge of this mission.

Wading into this lush jungle of civilian agencies, the head of the Northern Command will face two tough challenges: imposing order and finding his proper place. The cultural divide between soldier and civilian has hampered counter-terrorism efforts before, as when the Pentagon first tried to train emergency responders in the nation's largest 120 cities and didn't get high marks for it. So it is significant that, at the same time as the Pentagon works out the Northern Command, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is establishing a high-level civilian office within the Pentagon to coordinate military support for homeland security.

"It's very practically advantageous to have a civilian out in front," said Judith Miller, who worked through the same issues when she was Defense Department general counsel under President Clinton. Clinton's Army Secretary, Louis Caldera, agreed--and recounted how a plan to put homeland security under the all-military Joint Staff got thoroughly shot down: "There were a lot of very intense discussions about whether you would lose the civilian oversight," Caldera said. "It was important ... to keep a civilian point of entry."

A longtime state legislator himself (and now vice chancellor of the California State University system), Caldera argued that politicians simply connect better with other politicians, and that a political appointee could help bridge the gap between the military and the local governments it was assisting.

So what will the Northern Command actually offer for homeland security? Said Virginia's Foresman: "If it provides a centralized focus for the military's support to civil authorities, kind of a one-stop shopping, it will be a good idea."

The key concept is that the military supports and the civilians lead. The head of the new Northern Command will have four stars on his shoulders and "Commander in Chief" on his office door, but he will spend as much time taking orders as giving them. Which, in this country, is probably as it should be.

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