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Pentagon, governors face off over control of military reserve during natural disasters

Friday, August 14, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is upsetting the nation's governors by pushing for authority to call up military reservists for natural disasters -- and to control how the troops would be used in any state.

"Control" is the key word.

Largely considered a wartime resource, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine reserves can be tapped by the president for military deployments overseas and for national emergencies such as terrorist attacks. But the law is largely silent when Mother Nature is involved.

Bandied about in the past, the issue emerged anew in recent days after defense officials floated a new proposal on Capitol Hill, sparking a sharp response from the governors.

At the heart of the disagreement is who will exercise the muscle to command reserve troops when they are sent to a particular state to deal with a hurricane, wildfire or other disaster. The governors see the Pentagon move as a strike at state sovereignty, while the military justifies it as a natural extension of its use of federal forces.

States do want the help sometimes.

Just last year, California officials grew irate when they saw helicopters sitting idle at Camp Pendleton as fires raged through the countryside.

But while the Pentagon was able to direct active duty Marine helicopter units to respond to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's request for aid, it could not order the nearby Marine Corps Reserve units to do the same, said Paul Stockton, the assistant secretary for homeland defense.

The Pentagon argues that a change in law is needed so the president, through his defense chief, would gain the ability to mobilize reservists when a state seeks aid in a catastrophic natural disaster such as a hurricane. States have the authority to call on and command their National Guard troops in emergencies, but those Guard units are also still being used heavily by the Pentagon in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"The key here is that right now, we lack the authority to bring to bear the hundreds of thousands of trained reserve forces that in extreme circumstances might help governors deal with the disasters in their states," Stockton said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This provision would in no way impede or undermine or inadvertently reduce the authority that governors exercise under the United States Constitution."

That's not how the governors see it.

The National Governors Association opposes the plan, saying it would hinder state officials' ability to provide a coordinated emergency response. While governors want the assistance, they say they must have command and control over the reservists who respond.

Without that control, "strong potential exists for confusion in mission execution and the dilution of governors' control over situations with which they are more familiar and better capable of handling than a federal military commander," said Vermont Gov. James H. Douglas and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, the chairman and vice chairman of the NGA, in a letter to Stockton.

Giving the Pentagon control, governors say, would also set up two chains of command, inviting confusion and complicating response efforts.

The military prefers that its commanders retain control of the forces, while working with the states through coordinating task forces and other regular channels.

Unlike the National Guard, which is based in each state and commanded by the governors through the states' adjutant generals, the nation's 380,000 reservists come under the control of the federal government.

Guard members can be activated for federal duty, as many have for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But most often -- including in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina -- they operate under the control of their home-state governors.

After Katrina there were suggestions that President George W. Bush federalize the Guard for the massive government response, but state officials opposed the move and it was never carried out.

Reservists currently are governed by a lengthy, complex deployment process. The proposed legislation, Stockton said, would streamline that and allow a faster military response.

But when the military gets involved, questions arise about "who is in control and where the buck is going to stop. Governors take very seriously the responsibility of being in command and control of those responders," said David Quam, NGA's director of federal relations.

Stockton, who is meeting with military leaders including reserve commanders on the matter this week, said he is taking the governors' concerns very seriously. The two sides, he said, need to find a solution that respects the authorities of the governors, the president and the defense secretary.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it clear in the past that he does not favor ceding control of federal forces to state governors.

In 2007, Gates rejected a proposal in an independent commission report that would to let governors command active duty troops responding to disasters. Stockton said that while defense officials intend to try and work with the governors on the reserve proposal, there is no indication that Gates would have a different view on the federal reservists.


On the Net:

Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil

National Governors Association: http://www.nga.org


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