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   EDITORIAL:The Posse Comitatus Issue: Military's Role in Domestic Law Enforcement Must Be Strictly Limited


The Posse Comitatus Issue: Military's Role in Domestic Law Enforcement Must Be Strictly Limited

As the drumbeats for war against Iraq grow louder, and the signs that the White House has lost its collective mind grow stronger (the proposed TIPS citizen-informant plan being a most egregious example of the quality of wayward thinking from that quarter), we would do well to refresh ourselves on some history. Because, as so often happens, history—especially bad history— tends to repeat itself unless We the People can stall it off.

A move is afoot to permit our military forces to investigate and spy on US citizens for "national security reasons." It's bad enough to make spies out of 24 million citizens under the proposed TIPS program; it's much worse to make domestic spies out of people who are armed and trained to fight to kill.

History shows the Romans, over 2,000 years ago, saw that military personnel have to be kept out of politics. History shows that when armies lay their jackboot on civilians in their own countries, those countries--if they had ever enjoyed freedom and democracy--lost it.

Fast forward to 1878, when the US Congress, seeking to maintain the supremacy of civilian rule and protect civil liberties, passed the Posse Comitatus Act. This law outlawed using federal military forces for domestic law enforcement. The law specifically bars the use of "any part of the Army or Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws" of the United States. (Loosely translated from Latin, "posse comitatus" means "to empower a band of soldiers or mercenaries.")

While police are ideally professionals who are trained in the arts of restraint and prevention, and who have knowledge of the law and citizens' rights, this is not what soldiers are trained to do. They are trained to subdue, to disarm, to kill.

When soldiers take responsibility for internal security, they all too often end up taking over the government as well.

We Americans face big problems today— threats of nuclear assault, of terrorism, of drug-lord takeover of parts of our cities, etc.— and, as is our tendency, we want action. We want to put a stop to what bothers us so we can go on to the Next Big Thing. So too many of us are willing to allow the laws that have been enacted to protect our fundamental freedoms to be watered down.

For example, during the Reagan administration, the Posse Comitatus Act was amended to allow the use of the military in the so-called "war on drugs." The military were dispatched to identify and intercept drug smugglers outside the US, but by extension the military since that time has had a role in domestic drug law enforcement.

There was another incursion into the law in 1997, with the passage of 1614 Posse Comitatus Waiver -- 18 U.S.C. Section 351, which permits the FBI to request investigative assistance from any Federal, State or local agency including the Army, Navy, and Air Force. This measure was justified in an effort to counter biological or chemical attacks. The military, after all, has expertise in biowarfare detection, neutralization gear, and vaccines. The waiver, however, expressly forbids the military from arresting civilians during biowarfare operations.

We no more need the military involved in our domestic law enforcement program than we need our government involved in matters of religion. To the extent that cooperation might be called for in extreme circumstances, any military involvement of this nature must be carefully delineated and time-limited, with safeguards in place that are monitored and guarded over by our elected representatives.

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This story was published on August 7, 2002.
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