Just a year after the attacks of September 11, the Pentagon finally achieved a goal it had been seeking for years: the establishment of a military command for the domestic United States. The supposed rationale for creating the US Northern Command (Northcom, in Pentagon parlance) is primarily an antiterrorist one: to use the armed forces in response to a September 11-style or even more severe attack. “It’s a recognition by the Department of Defense that the world has in fact changed,” says Pete Verga, a retired US Army officer who served as the first head of the Pentagon’s Homeland Security Task Force. “The idea that the homeland is not a combat zone turned out not to be true.”
In fact, Northcom is in some respects just an extension of a trend that has been going on for some time: the weakening of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military to enforce US laws. This trend accelerated with the passage of the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Official Act in the early 1980s, along with other laws assigning domestic tasks to the armed forces as part of the War on Drugs. Many Bush Administration officials were early Northcom supporters, among them Lewis Libby, a key player in Vice President Cheney’s office who was a member of a working group that created a study called “Defending the U.S. Homeland,” published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1999. That study suggested that the Defense Department be given responsibility for domestic antiterrorism as well as “monitoring crossings of the US border” and “protecting the perimeter of key cities.”
But where supporters see the establishment of Northcom as an important part of the “war on terror,” the American Civil Liberties Union calls it dangerous. “It is a major departure from the tradition of keeping the military out of law enforcement that will reverberate for decades to come,” says Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the ACLU’s Washington office. And indeed, except for the most unlikely, extreme cases, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the military could play an effective antiterrorist role within the United States. “Last Thanksgiving , outside Miami International Airport, there were National Guardsmen in a tank, as if Al Qaeda was going to roll up in a military-style assault,” scoffs Gene Healy of the libertarian Cato Institute, which has monitored the increasing involvement of the military in domestic law enforcement. “It does weird things to our political culture when we start getting used to armed troops on the streets, that we find that comforting,” he says. “It makes the United States start looking like we’re not a democracy.”
At Northcom headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, officials are busily getting things up to speed, with a first-year budget of $70 million. Its staff will soon have its full complement of 500. Agencies with permanent liaison personnel at Northcom include the FBI, CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which operates spy satellites. Northcom also has a Washington office, which provides liaison with the Justice Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than 200 people will be engaged in gathering domestic intelligence, receiving information from local and state police as well as US intelligence agencies–reviving critics’ memories of how Army intelligence units spied on civilians during the cold war.