After visiting a series of military installations over the weekend to check on efforts to deal with the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, President Bush on Monday called on the congress to consider an increased role for the military in handling major natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
The President spent the last three days observing the U.S. military's disaster relief efforts in action, first at Northern Command headquarters in Colorado, and then in storm-ravaged areas of Texas and Louisiana. He came away with praise for the military effort, and speaking Monday he indicated again that he believes changes are needed in the way the U.S. government responds to disasters.
"One of the reasons I went out to NORTHCOM was to see the operations there, to look at how well organized NORTHCOM is, to listen to them talk about lessons learned from a major storm like Katrina, to think about ways for our country to properly respond to catastrophic event, whether it would be a natural catastrophic event or perhaps a terrorist attack," he said.
President Bush has taken responsibility for the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina, and he has described the military as the only organization that can provide a large-scale response, with the right capability and in a short time-frame, when a disaster hits. On Sunday, he said the military should take the lead in responding to damage from a terrorist attack, and raised the question of whether that should also be true when a particularly large natural disaster strikes.
On Monday, he expanded on that thought, referring to the need for stability in a disaster zone. Widespread looting plagued New Orleans after massive flooding earlier this month. For the military to take on a law enforcement role would require a change in a law passed more than 125 years ago, and designed to protect local areas from a federal takeover. President Bush called on the congress to consider changing the law to allow the Department of Defense, which he refers to by the initials "DoD," to do more, especially in the first days after a major storm or attack.
"I do want them to think about a circumstance that requires a lot of planning and a lot of assets immediately on the scene in order to stabilize. And so what I was speculating about was a scenario which would federal assets to stabilize a situation, primarily DoD (Department of Defense) assets or (only) DoD assets, and then hand back over to the Department of Homeland Security, for example," he said.
In the past, the Defense Department has been opposed to any change in the law to give the military a role in civilian law enforcement. But on Monday, Department spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to repeat that opposition, saying only that the issue deserves a "close look" within the broader federal review of disaster relief policy. And in recent weeks Department officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have spoken of a need to give the military more freedom to act to save lives and provide relief when local authorities are unable to do so, as was true immediately after Hurricane Katrina reached the southern U.S. coast.
During a meeting with President Bush on Sunday, one senior general called the response to Hurricane Katrina a "train wreck," and another indicated that a better national plan must be in place to deal with future disasters, some of which may not provide as much warning as an approaching hurricane does.