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Pentagon begins review of law on military's domestic role

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says department is examining 1878 Posse Comitatus Act to determine whether revisions are needed.

The Pentagon has begun what might become a historic review of a post-Reconstruction-era law that bars the military from participating in domestic law enforcement activities, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said Monday.

During a brief telephone conversation Monday afternoon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld informed Warner that department officials are examining the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act to determine whether revisions are needed to give the military police powers during major domestic disasters. Under that law, the active-duty military can participate in humanitarian relief missions, but are prohibited from making arrests or conducting searches or seizures.

"He assured me the matter is being carefully reviewed," said Warner, who urged Rumsfeld earlier this month to review the law in the wake of a massive military deployment to the Gulf Coast in response to Hurricane Katrina.

Rumsfeld and several lawmakers opposed efforts to revise Posse Comitatus after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, arguing that it is not the military's job to conduct arrests, searches or seizures on U.S. soil.

But a sweeping statement made earlier this month by President Bush has renewed the national debate over whether the military is better equipped than local law enforcement to maintain order under extreme circumstances.

During a Sept. 15 speech in New Orleans that laid out initiatives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Bush said he wanted a "broader role" for the military during domestic disasters. He revealed few specifics, other than to say the Defense Department is "the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice."

Those remarks came a day after Warner urged a Pentagon review of Posse Comitatus, prompting questions from lawmakers about whether the president wants to give the military police powers during a major natural disaster.

Over the weekend, Bush said he had talked with U.S. Northern Command officials about whether the military should take the lead role in any initial response to a major disaster.

And the president attempted again Monday to clarify his Sept. 15 statement, saying he wants to begin a "robust discussion" about how the federal government can best respond to disasters and other major events on U.S. soil, including how to make better use of military personnel and equipment.

"What I was speculating about was a scenario which would require federal assets to stabilize the situation, primarily DoD assets," Bush said Monday at the Energy Department.

Bush did not discuss Posse Comitatus in particular, but hinted that revisions to laws might be necessary to change how the military can respond to natural disasters.

"I don't want to prejudge the Congress's discussion on this issue, because it may require a change of law," Bush said.

Congress is still awaiting details from the Defense Department on any proposal to expand the military's domestic role, Warner said.

Once the administration works out the specifics, the Armed Services Committee will review it. At the same time, Warner said he intends to work with committee members on any ideas or proposals they might have.

There should be "no rush to judgment" on any decisions to change the military's domestic role, Warner said. "We should look at this very, very carefully."

Meanwhile, the Armed Services Committee is waiting for Senate leaders to schedule floor debate for the $441.6 billion defense authorization bill, which was shelved in late July.

Over the weekend, committee and leadership staff made progress on discussions to limit both the time for the debate and the number of amendments allowed, Warner said.

Among those amendments likely will be language introduced by Armed Services Airland Subcommittee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., that would standardize detainee interrogation policies -- a move the White House opposes.

Warner said he plans to include that amendment during debate of the authorization bill, and intends to pull a similar amendment he introduced on the detainee issue and support McCain's language.