WASHINGTON – The Selective Service System, which has remained in existence despite the abandonment of conscription three decades ago, is making preparations to tests its draft machinery in case Congress and President George W. Bush need it, even though the White House says it does not want to bring back the draft.
The agency is planning a comprehensive test — not run since 1998 — of its military draft systems, a Selective Service official said. The test itself would not likely occur until 2009.
Scott Campbell, the service's director for operations and chief information officer, cautioned that the "readiness exercise" does not mean the agency is gearing up to resume the draft.
"We're kind of like a fire extinguisher. We sit on a shelf ...Unless the president and Congress get together and say, 'Turn the machine on' ... we're still on the shelf," Campbell told The Associated Press.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson prompted speculation about the draft Thursday when he told reporters in New York that "society would benefit" if the U.S. were to bring back the draft. Later he issued a statement saying he does not support reinstituting a draft.
The administration has for years forcefully opposed bringing back the draft, and the White House said Thursday that policy has not changed and no proposal to reinstate the draft is being considered.
The "readiness exercise" would test the system that randomly chooses draftees by birth date and its network of appeal boards that decide how to deal with conscientious objectors and others who want to delay reporting for duty, said Campbell.
The Selective Service will start planning for the 2009 tests next in June or July, although budget cuts could force the agency the cancel the tests, said Campbell.
On Wednesday, Bush said he is considering sending more troops to Iraq and has asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to look into adding more troops to the nearly 1.4 million uniformed personnel on active duty.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, increasing the Army by 40,000 troops would cost as much as $2.6 billion (euro1.97 billion) the first year and $4 billion (euro3.04 billion) after that. Military officials have said the Army and Marine Corps want to add as many as 35,000 more troops.
Recruiting new forces and retaining current troops is more complicated because of the unpopular war in Iraq. In recent years, the Army has accepted recruits with lower aptitude test scores.
In remarks to reporters, Nicholson recalled his own experience as a company commander in an infantry unit that brought together soldiers of different backgrounds and education levels "in the common purpose of serving."
Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, plans to introduce a bill next year to reinstate the draft. House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has said such a proposal would not be high on the Democratic-led Congress' priority list.
Hearst Newspapers first reported the planned test for a story sent to its subscribers for weekend use.
The military drafted people during the Civil War and both world wars and between 1948 and 1973. Reincorporated in 1980, the Selective Service System maintains a registry of 18-year-old men, but call-ups have not occurred since the Vietnam War.