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Pentagon Wants New Look at Its Role in Domestic Emergencies

The morning after President Bush called for a greater role for the U.S. military in responding to domestic disasters, a senior Defense Department official said U.S. laws and government procedures need to be re-evaluated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to allow the military to provide disaster relief more effectively. The department's chief spokesman says existing laws are 'antiquated,' and caused problems in responding to a disaster in which local governments became 'incapable' of taking the leading role, as they are supposed to.

President Bush raised the issue of the military role in domestic disasters in his speech Thursday night from New Orleans.

"The system, at every level of government, was not well-coordinated, and was overwhelmed in the first few days," said George W. Bush. "It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces - the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice."

Friday morning, Defense Department spokesman Lawrence DiRita invited reporters into his office to say that when a massive disaster happens, whether manmade or natural, there is "no other organization that can marshal the resources in the time that they're needed than the Department of Defense." Mr. DiRita said that is not new, but Hurricane Katrina brought the fact into new focus, and has also raised new questions about how to enable the military to act with fewer legal and bureaucratic obstacles.

U.S. law gives local governments the leading role in providing disaster relief, with civilian and military aid from the federal government available on request. Mr. DiRita says, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the military did not wait to be asked, and began moving troops and equipment into the disaster zone even before the storm hit. But he also says questions were raised about who was in charge of the operation - military commanders or local officials - and active-duty soldiers were prevented, by law, from performing police functions, which were badly needed, especially in New Orleans, where the police department was incapacitated by the flooding for several days.

The federal government has been criticized for not responding swiftly enough to the disaster.

The Pentagon spokesman says the military was prevented from taking a greater role in part because of a 19th century law, called the Insurrection Act. That law gives the president the power to override the ban on military policing and take some powers away from state governors. But the law was designed to prevent regional rebellions, like the U.S. Civil War, and officials were reluctant to use it to take power from local officials who were clearly not in rebellion, but were simply rendered incapable of dealing with the natural disaster that hit their area.

Mr. DiRita said the Congress should look at the legal situation, and he suggested that the government may define some sort of trigger mechanism for the future, so that, when disasters happen on a certain scale, normal restrictions are suspended. He said a civilian agency will likely remain in charge of disaster relief, but the government needs to eliminate policy and legal obstacles to delivering needed relief quickly, a function only the military can perform on a large scale. Mr. DiRita said that is part of the government-wide review of disaster relief that President Bush said on Thursday he has ordered.

"I've ordered every Cabinet Secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane," he said. "This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We're going to review every action and make necessary changes, so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people."

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said Friday that includes taking a look at the relationships among the various government agencies that respond to disasters, including the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He says one point has already emerged, that the military has planning capabilities that could help civilian agencies - local and federal - do a better job of preparing for disasters.

Mr. DiRita says the Defense Department has begun reviewing the events of the last three weeks to see what additional lessons can be learned for the future. He says no formal recommendations are ready, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is asking a lot of questions.