The Obama administration’s decision to enlist the Defense Department in responding to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is raising concerns that the task is pulling the already-stretched military away from other missions, including vital counter-terrorism operations.
According to a senior military official, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said at a recent meeting: "The Department of Defense's number one priority is combating Ebola."
However, a Defense Department source told Fox News that alarms had been raised about the decision.
“We don’t need to be taking planners away from the CT [counterterrorism] mission, and that is what is going on,” the Defense Department source said.
USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are already involved, but President Obama said in an interview last weekend that the U.S. military is being brought in to help stanch the deadly epidemic. Obama said the military could help set up isolation units and provide security for health workers, among other tasks.
But the decision comes as the military is already engaged in counter-terrorism operations in Africa, and as the president expands the campaign in the Middle East against the Islamic State.
The Defense source said the White House is behind the move to involve the Defense Department, and a meeting of key leaders was set up for Friday afternoon at the White House.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest announced that Obama will visit the CDC in Atlanta on Tuesday to receive a briefing on Ebola and thank scientists for their effort combating the disease.
But the Defense source said that military leaders were “cornered” by the White House with the response mission, and that USAID and CDC are “begging” for military help when they should be the “lead.” The source said the government is turning to DOD because the NGOs that agencies typically work with on the ground have fled.
A USAID official denies the agency has asked DoD to “take the lead” with Ebola. “It’s an interagency response, we all have a role to play.”
With the military stretched as it is, the source said, “Africa Command has Libya, LRA (in Uganda), Somalia, Nigeria to worry about.”
But the source said Africa Command, or AFRICOM, has been furiously preparing its plans all the same.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, responded to Fox News Saturday night about AFRICOM's Ebola planning taking away resources from counterterrorism.
"Since no additional decisions have been made about DoD support to Africa, there has been no impact to AFRICOM's resources,” he said. "Whatever capabilities we may lend would be in support of USAID and the State Department."
On Sunday, Dempsey spokesman Col. Ed Thomas said: "Developing options to support broader government efforts led by USAID and State is a priority and the chairman was been watching the developing situation for several weeks now."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., at an American Enterprise Institute address on Thursday, also raised concerns about the military being tapped for this mission.
“We keep asking our military to do more and more. The other day I saw that they’re going to be asked to go help solve the Ebola crisis,” McKeon said. “And at the same time we’re saying go do this, and then taking away their resources with the other hand – it doesn’t make sense.”
The Washington Post reported that Laurie Garrett, a health expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed that point, saying “the cavalry is not going to ride to the rescue.”
According to the Post, Defense Department spending has decreased 21 percent since 2010.
But as part of the first steps in tackling the Ebola crisis, the Pentagon is sending health workers in Liberia a “25-bed facility,” according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
A USAID official acknowledged the volunteer effort in West Africa is lower than in past natural disasters but told Fox News: "While there are some NGO’s in the affected region that are reassessing based on safety/security issues, we still have trusted partners who are working on the emergency response despite these dangerous conditions."
The efforts come amid dire warnings about the possibility that Ebola could spread, mutate or both.
Obama defended the decision to bring in the military in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” calling it a “national security priority.”
“If we don't make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa, but other parts of the world, there's the prospect then that the virus mutates, it becomes more easily transmittable, and then it could be a serious danger to the United States,” he said.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, also wrote in The New York Times that a possibility experts are reluctant to acknowledge publicly is that “an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air.” It is currently only transmitted by contact with bodily fluids.
The other U.S. lead agencies are also expanding their role in Africa. USAID announced earlier this week that U.S. funding will be used to transport 100 health workers to the region, part of the United States’ $100 million response to date.
“The U.S. is committed to supporting the African Union's response to the urgent needs across West Africa as a result of this vicious disease. We can and will stop this epidemic, but it will take a coordinated effort by the entire global community,” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said in a statement.
The White House is also seeking another $88 million from Congress for the CDC’s efforts, according to a senior administration official.
FoxNews.com’s Judson Berger contributed to this report.