It seems that the United States military coup of 2012 has arrived about 10 years early. Well, okay, not the full-fledged classic coup, led by a general on horseback. But, as they say, close enough for government work.
First, more about that coup. In 1992, a then little-known deputy staff judge advocate lieutenant-colonel by the name of Charles J Dunlap Jr published an article titled "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012" (1) in the US Army War College's military journal Parameters. In a plot that was a cross between Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and the movie The Siege , he depicted an America in which a military coup had taken place in the year 2012, and General Thomas E T Brutus, commander-in-chief of the Unified Armed Forces of the United States, occupies the White House as permanent military plenipotentiary. A senior retired officer of the military is one of those arrested, having been convicted by court-martial for opposing the coup. Prior to his execution, he discusses the origins of the coup, arguing that it was the outgrowth of trends visible as far back as 1992. These trends were the massive diversion of military forces to civilian use, the monolithic unification of the armed forces, and the insularity of the military community.
While Dunlap, now a brigadier-general at the Air Combat Command, has not weighed in on this recently, the last two trends have been evident for many years. The Goldwater-Nichols reforms passed by Congress in the 1980s greatly strengthened jointness among the traditionally separate armed forces and the increasingly conservative and republican nature of the armed forces, which is well documented by journalists and academics.
But a report in the November 23 Los Angeles Times by respected military affairs analyst William Arkin provides the latest evidence that the supposedly inviolate wall keeping the military out of traditional civilian activities is eroding, due the diversion of the military to civilian missions.
That wall is embodied in the US by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, enacted to preclude federal troops from doing the bidding of local politicians in the occupied South following the Civil War. It prohibits the military from conducting domestic law enforcement operations. Congress wanted to make it crystal clear, as Richard Nixon might have said, that there is a great difference in a democracy between protecting our nation from foreign attack and policing our neighborhoods. But the law also allows Congress and the president to make exceptions, and over the years they have done so.
They did so notably in the 1980s in the Ronald Reagan era when the US military was dragged kicking and screaming into counter-drug operations. Ironically, then defense secretary Caspar Weinberger wrote in 1985, "Reliance on military forces to accomplish civilian tasks is detrimental to both military readiness and the democratic process."
On May 20, 1997, a Marine anti-drug squad stalked, shot and allowed to bleed to death Ezequiel Hernandez, an 18-year-old high school sophomore, while he was herding goats near his home in Redford Texas, near the Rio Grande River, the site of heavy military drug interdiction activity. Hernandez's death was the first fatal shooting of a US civilian since the military began anti-drug missions in the 1980s and is the first American killed by soldiers on US soil since the 1970 National Guard killings of four students at Kent State during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.
In fact, Congress already has passed several laws relaxing the strictures of the act in order to deal with potential attacks on American soil. In 1997, Congress gave the Pentagon authority to cooperate with the Justice Department in responding to biological or chemical attacks. Another law gives the president authority in an emergency to use the armed forces to perform work "essential for the preservation of life and property". Another allows military personnel to assist the Justice Department in collecting intelligence or conducting searches and seizures if "necessary for the immediate protection of human life". Section 104 of the USA Patriot Act passed last year further authorizes the emergency use of the military in "case of attack with a weapon of mass destruction".
Taken together, all these measures give the president authority to use the military in most conceivable emergency situations. But after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Pentagon picked up extra responsibilities focused on preventing future terrorist attacks on US soil. US Air Force pilots were and are now authorized to shoot down commercial airliners, if necessary. The Air National Guard flew thousands of combat air patrols (Operation Noble Eagle) over major American cities
Some US military officials want to put unmanned aerial vehicles in the skies above the continental US to conduct surveillance and intelligence operations. The North American Aerospace Defense Command wants to use a high-altitude airship to detect cruise missiles and monitor vessels and other potential threats approaching the continent.
Initially, the Pentagon expanded the role of the US Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), giving it additional authority to coordinate and deploy military forces to fight terrorism in the continental US. The commander was placed in charge of the land and maritime defense of the continental US, as well as providing military assistance to civil authorities. JFCOM already was responsible for providing support to civilian authorities responding to attacks or disasters, and for planning the land and maritime defense of the continental US. Now, it would also have the power to deploy military forces domestically to fight terrorism and defend the homeland, an authority previously left to the defense secretary.
But this was deemed unwieldy, and thus led to the creation of the Northern Command, an organization that consolidates all existing military homeland defense and security operations. Concerns about possible violations of the Posse Comitatus Act caused Congress, in the 2002 Defense Authorization Act, to "conduct a study on the appropriate role of the Department of Defense with respect to homeland security".
Last year, however, the Bush administration's Homeland Security strategy document said: "The threat of catastrophic terrorism requires a thorough review of the laws permitting the military to act within the United States in order to determine whether domestic preparedness and response efforts would benefit from greater involvement of military personnel and, if so, how."
Since then the Defense Department also has been inserted into two very visible new agencies. It transferred about 50 new employees in the new Department of Homeland Security to the White House's newly formed Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which is designed to make sure the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation share information.
At Homeland Security's United States Northern Command (Northcom) headquarters at the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, more than 200 people will be engaged in gathering domestic intelligence, receiving information from local and state police as well as US intelligence agencies.
But as Arkin's article makes clear, Northcom is doing more than mere coordinating. "Under the banner of 'homeland security', the military and intelligence communities are implementing far-reaching changes that blur the lines between terrorism and other kinds of crises and will break down long-established barriers to military action and surveillance within the US."
According to Arkin, Northcom has defined three levels of operations, each of which triggers a larger set of authorized activities. The levels are "extraordinary", "emergency" and "temporary". During emergencies, the military can provide similar support, mostly in response to specific events such as the attacks on the World Trade Center. It is only in the case of extraordinary domestic operations that the unique capabilities of the Defense Department are deployed. These include not just such things as air patrols to shoot down hijacked planes or the defusing of bombs and other explosives, but also bringing in intelligence collectors, special operators and even full combat troops.
Some say this is nothing new. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in January, former US senator Gary Hart said American founders "created such an army and called it the militia: citizen-soldiers under the immediate command of the various states that can be deployed in times of emergency. Since the late 19th century these militias have been known as the National Guard, and they were created and given constitutional status as the first responders and the first line of defense in the case of an attack on our homeland".
Indeed, on December 2 Paul McHale, former Democratic congressman and now the Defense Department's assistant secretary for homeland defense, said at the Defense Manufacturing Conference in Washington that military studies of potential domestic terrorist attacks have determined that the National Guard should not only protect the defense industrial base but also critical infrastructure that has previously been defended by civilian law enforcement agencies.
In the future, the National Guard will be the lead organization that coordinates military and civilian responses to terrorist threats and attacks against some critical infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants, McHale said.
He also said the Pentagon reviewed the Posse Comitatus Act and determined that it would not be a violation to deploy the National Guard to protect critical infrastructure in some circumstances. He said he expects more presidential directives in the future to expand the military's homeland defense role.
But the same basic concerns about military involvement still remain relevant. From a civil liberties viewpoint, while members of the armed forces take an oath to uphold and defend the constitution, they are not trained, like the police, to uphold Americans' rights to privacy and due process. Civil libertarians' fears about due process have been heightened since September 11 by the indefinite detention of citizens and immigrants, and by proposals to try them before secret military tribunals.
Flashback: American armed forces are assuming major new domestic policing and surveillance roles