Top U.S. Defense officials say they want a review of their secondary role in responding to domestic disasters, in the wake of significant delays in getting relief supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina last week. Under U.S. law, the military can only act inside the country when asked to do so by civilian agencies, a situation two top Defense Department officials say may change.
At a news conference on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top military officer, General Richard Myers, defended the military's response to Hurricane Katrina, saying equipment and personnel were in place and ready to respond to requests from civilian agencies.
The overall relief effort has been widely criticized as slow and ineffective in the first days after the storm and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans. The military has generally been praised for its effectiveness once its forces were deployed on rescue and supply missions, but their impact was not broadly felt until at least two days after the crisis broke.
Secretary Rumsfeld noted that the Defense Department plays what he called "a supporting role" in domestic crises, and General Myers spoke of efforts just before and after the storm hit to "anticipate" what requests might be made by civilian authorities. Secretary Rumsfeld indicated that part of the review of the handling of the Katrina disaster, ordered by President Bush, will include a look at the roles of the various government agencies in responding to natural disasters and potential attacks.
"Just as the Department of Defense does not have lead responsibility with respect to natural disasters, so too we do not have lead responsibility with respect to attacks within the United States from within the United States, and I'm sure that the government will be addressing that question in a serious way, as we all should - what kinds of adjustments in all departments of government might be, given what might be learned as a result of this," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld said he has been worried about the government's ability to respond to such a crisis at least since the September 11 attacks. And General Myers indicated there has already been some discussion of changing the way the U.S. government manages disasters, as part of the current review of Defense Department operations, which is done every four years.
"We are, by the way, in the Quadrennial Defense Review, one of the areas that we're looking at is the department's roles and missions and responsibilities, and the question, 'Are other authorities required or not required, given the magnitude of what could happen?,'" he said.
General Myers reports there are now more than 58,000 troops involved in relief efforts across the southern U.S. coast, most of them national guard soldiers under the control of state governors. He says there are more than 300 helicopters involved in the effort, and nearly that many fixed-wing aircraft. The general says troops are involved in rescue efforts, providing medical treatment, food and water, fighting fires and working to pump the water out of the flooded city of New Orleans.
The top U.S. military officer is also denying allegations that U.S. troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan hurt the Defense Department's ability to respond effectively to the Katrina disaster. And he also says the large commitment of forces to the relief effort will not hurt the U.S. military's ability to help provide security for two important upcoming events overseas -- Afghanistan's election and Iraq's constitutional referendum.