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US Commander says Military Ready to Defend During Transition

As the United States prepares for the transition between one presidential administration and another, the U.S. Defense Department is keeping an eye on potential threats from enemies wanting to take advantage of the situation. The commander of the northern air defense organization, NORAD, as well as the U.S. Northern Command, General Victor Renuart Jr., spoke about the challenges Tuesday at the Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston. VOA's Greg Flakus was there.

General Renuart said the U.S. military is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to protect the nation from conventional and non-conventional threats. He said the terrorist attack on Mumbai, India demonstrates the need to be ever vigilant and ready to respond to events that may not fit models based on past events.

In a VOA interview, the U.S. Air Force general said special vigilance is needed during the change of administration in Washington.

"This is a period of transition and I think it is conceivable that an adversary would try to take advantage of that. Our role is to make sure that we maintain continuity of effort in the defense and security and civil support for our homeland," he said.

General Renuart also sought to clarify the domestic role of the U.S. Armed Forces during any catastrophic event. The Washington Post published a report Monday indicating 20,000 U.S. troops are being deployed to special domestic units to respond to potential terrorist attacks.

Civil liberties groups have expressed concern that this deployment could undermine the Posse Comitatus Act, which restricts the military role in domestic law enforcement.

But General Renuart said these troops will not be involved in law enforcement and will only be used to assist other agencies in dealing with an overwhelming disaster.

"Congress asked the Defense Department about three years ago to be prepared for three near simultaneous catastrophic events - nuclear, chemical, biologic, et cetera. What this capability does for us is allow us to have in a very well-trained, integrated, rapidly deployable organization, the chemical assessment, the decontamination, the medical treatment facilities that could help a state and the federal agencies respond to one of these kinds of events," he said.

General Renuart said the domestic force will consist of three forces of 4,700 persons, the first of which became available at Fort Stewart, Georgia on October first. The other two rapid-response forces are expected to be in place by the year 2011.

Civil libertarians, however, remain concerned over what they see as an expansion of executive and military authority on domestic soil.

In comments before an audience at the Baker Institute, General Renuart also discussed such issues as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, protection of U.S. ports and cooperation with Canada and Mexico. He expressed concern over the increasing violence along the U.S.-Mexico border resulting from Mexican President Felipe Calderon's attempts to defeat powerful drug smuggling gangs. The U.S. Northern Command commander said the United States should provide whatever assistance it can to Mexico to benefit the security of both nations.