Defense official: Plans for federal crisis response still needed

Pentagon office will seek legislative change to provide Defense with a sustained funding source for having National Guard troops carry out domestic missions.

A senior Defense Department official said Friday that the Homeland Security Department should lead a massive effort to ensure that federal departments have plans for responding to catastrophes and that all the plans are integrated.

Paul McHale, assistant Defense secretary for homeland defense, said the Homeland Security Department should ensure there is a coordinated federal response for each of 15 all-hazards crisis scenarios developed by the White House Homeland Security Council in 2004.

The scenarios outline major disasters or attacks that the United Sates may face, especially with regard to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents. "We have got to come together in our interagency planning," McHale said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation.

McHale said he does not believe Congress needs to pass legislation to force that kind of integration. He acknowledged, however, that his office is seeking some legislative changes so the Defense Department can better carry out its homeland defense missions. He said he approved a package this week of about "a half dozen" recommendations for legislative changes.

One such change is to provide Defense with a sustained funding source for having National Guard troops carry out domestic missions, such as guarding critical infrastructure sites, McHale said. He declined to comment on the other proposals, saying the office of the Defense secretary has not yet signed off on sending them to Congress.

McHale also said Defense is not seeking any changes to the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits active-duty military personnel from performing domestic law enforcement activities. But he said the department's response to Hurricane Katrina last year revealed problems that needed to be fixed regarding the military's handling of domestic disasters.

For example, he said National Guard and active-duty forces were not integrated to the degree that they should have been. "We had two stove-piped approaches," he said. "They ran along parallel, not intersecting, paths." Defense also had poor coordination with search and rescue missions, and did not perform timely damage assessments.

Communications interoperability was another major problem, but McHale said the department will have "full interoperability with our communications" in the event of another catastrophe. And he said Defense has to be ready to deploy troops to help domestic law enforcement agencies control civil disorder.

Katrina was "a sober warning," but was "at the low end of a catastrophic event," McHale said. The department's strategy for homeland defense and civil support, he said, anticipates that transnational terrorists will attempt to carry out simultaneous, coordinated attacks using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction, adding that the United States is part of the "global battlespace."

The threat from transnational terrorists will characterize conflict for the 21st century, even if the al Qaida terrorist network is defeated, McHale said.