WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is looking at ways the military can help provide more security along the U.S. southern border, defense officials said Thursday, once again drawing the nation's armed forces into a politically sensitive domestic role.
On Capitol Hill on Thursday, the House voted 252-171 to allow Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to assign military personnel under certain circumstances to help the Homeland Security Department perform border security. The House added the provision to a larger military measure.
Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, asked officials this week to come up with options for the use of military resources and troops — particularly the National Guard — along the border with Mexico, according to defense officials familiar with the discussions. The officials, who requested anonymity because the matter has not been made public, said there are no details yet on a defense strategy.
The request comes as some Southern lawmakers met this week with White House strategist Karl Rove for a discussion that included making greater use of National Guard troops to shore up border control. Congress is poised to pass legislation this month that would call for additional border security, a new guest worker program and provisions opening the way to eventual citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
"The Texas delegation is very concerned about the border and are pushing urgency," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who joined other Texas Republicans in a meeting with Rove this week. He said Rove was "very forthright" about border projects that Homeland Security is starting up, its current projects and what the needs are.
Rep. Ken Marchant, R-Texas, who also attended the meeting, said the lawmakers left "very encouraged."
Currently, the military plays a very limited role along the borders, but some armed forces have been used in the past to help battle drug traffickers. National Guard units, meanwhile, have been used at time by Southern and Western governors to provide assistance at border crossings.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said the military help "is basically what she has been asking for," spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer said. Napolitano has been asking the Pentagon to send more National Guard troops — but not regular military — to confont illegal immigration from Mexico. About 170 National Guard troops are helping in such efforts in the state now.
Defense officials said they have been asked to map out what military resources could be made available if needed — including options for using the National Guard under either state or federal control. The strategy would also explore the legal guidelines for use of the military on domestic soil, the officials said.
The National Guard is generally under the control of the state governors, but Guard units can be federalized by the president, such as those sent to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Active duty military cannot be used for law enforcement unless the president specifically decides to exercise that option.
Officials wrangled over the use of the active military during Hurricane Katrina, with some suggesting that troops be used for law enforcement to quell violence and looters in New Orleans. There were also suggestions that Bush federalize the National Guard there — removing them from state control, but state officials opposed that proposal. In the end, neither move was made.
At its peak during Katrina, the military had about 22,000 active-duty troops in the Gulf region, in addition to about 50,000 National Guard troops operating under the state governors' command. The active- duty military provided ships, helicopters, search-and-rescue aid, evacuations and other assistance.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, Bush asked Pentagon officials to review ways to give the military a bigger role in responding to major disasters. But officials are somewhat reluctant to make major changes, leery of the image of armed military troops patrolling U.S. cities.
Under the Civil War-era Posse Comitatus Act, federal troops are prohibited from performing law enforcement actions, such as making arrests, seizing property or searching people. In extreme cases, however, the president can invoke the Insurrection Act, also from the Civil War, which allows him to use active-duty or National Guard troops for law enforcement.