Columns » Max Brantley

Controlling authority

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It’s hard to see a bright side in national emergencies. But one may be emerging from the awful string of events that includes the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, and even, perhaps, the threatened pandemic of avian flu.

Where’s the good news here?

It may be that, at last, Americans are recognizing — and coming together to oppose — the power grab the Bush administration is making under cover of these tragic events.

Finally, red and blue are coming together to defend the red, white and blue.

The president went too far, even for some of his most ardent supporters, when he began pushing to have active-duty military units play a lead in disaster response.

We can congratulate our own governor, Mike Huckabee, for standing with governors from both parties in opposition to the president’s plan.

Huckabee may merely be defending political turf, or trying to claim new ground as he eyes the presidency, but the sterling fact remains that, as chairman of the National Governors Association, on this issue, Huckabee stands in defense of civil liberties, against his party’s leader.

“It’s a bad idea for the military to make that decision and usurp the authority that, under the Constitution, stays with the governor and local authorities,” Huckabee said last month.

He told reporters, “I haven’t heard any governors say, ‘That’s a great idea. I’ll give up my power to an unelected general to oversee my state.’

“That would be a significant, almost revolutionary, change in government policy and practice ...

“You’re going to have a push-back from governors, county executives, mayors, fire chiefs, police chiefs, all up and down the emergency-management structure.”

Since passage of the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878, America’s military has largely been prohibited from acting as a domestic police force. The PCA embodies the traditional American principle of keeping civilian and military authority separate.

For the past few decades, however, that separation has faced serious erosion.

In 1989, Congress designated the Department of Defense as the “single lead agency” in drug interdiction efforts.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton proposed an exception to the PCA to allow the military to aid civilian authorities in investigations involving “weapons of mass destruction.”

Congress has considered legislation to directly involve federal troops in enforcing customs and immigration laws at the border.

The USA PATRIOT Act, parts of which undercut civil rights protections that Americans have held sacred for centuries, was rushed into law almost before the dust from the attacks on the World Trade Center had settled.

Similarly, flood waters were still flowing into New Orleans when members of the Bush administration suggested that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco surrender her authority to federal officials.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “When you have a severe catastrophic event like a Hurricane Katrina, you need to have the authority, a trigger, to allow for the military to assume full responsibility for the immediate response in order to stabilize the situation and then step back and let others assume control.”

This time, Americans seem ready to reject the fear-mongering. Finally, liberals and conservatives alike are crying foul.

As Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, said, “Whether a governor is a Republican or Democrat, I would expect the response would be, ‘Hell, no.’ ”

That “hell, no” shouldn’t just come from governors. We, the people, can shout it too.


Mara Leveritt is contributing editor to the Times and an author. Max Brantley is on vacation.



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