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William Arkin on the Increasing Military Role in Emergency Response

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President Bush wants to use the hurricane to wipe out Posse Comitatus, which bans the military from engaging in domestic law enforcement. Former intelligence analyst William Arkin talks about the apparently growing role of the military in responding to natural disasters and other domestic crises. [includes rush transcript]

After the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, the role of the military in mitigating the disaster has been under question. William Arkin alleges that Michael Brown is being scapegoated for the governement’s mistakes, saying Brown is the most convenient and available person to be held accountable.

  • William Arkin, Former intelligence analyst and consultant, writes a blog called Early Warning on the Washingtonpost.com website.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a minute we’re going to talk with the St. Patrick’s Four, but first to William Arkin in Vermont, writes a blog called Early Warning on the Washington Post website. He, too, has written about how Michael Brown is being scapegoated for the government’s mistakes in responding to Katrina. Welcome to Democracy Now!

WILLIAM ARKIN: Good morning, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. I assume you heard or read about the hearing yesterday. Can you talk about that issue of scapegoating, and also what about the role of the Armed Forces? Now that President Bush has gotten back on his feet, he keeps talking about an expanded role for the military in this country.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, I do believe that Michael Brown is not the official in the American government who was ultimately responsible for the failure of the federal government’s response; in that regard, he was set up, but, gee, I have to also say at the same time, it’s about time that somebody in the Bush administration has been held accountable for something. So, unfortunately, for Mr. Brown, he happened to be the most convenient and most available person to be held accountable at a time when the Bush administration really needed to demonstrate that it actually cared about what Americans felt.

From this whole debate, there has been an unfortunate outcome, kind of typical to Washington, I suppose, which is this notion that since FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security failed so miserably with Katrina, that we should just assign the mission to the military and that somehow even the military was not able to provide all of its expertise and forces because there were laws that impeded the President using them for that task.

Both of these notions are just dead wrong. First of all, there’s really nothing that prevents the President of the United States from declaring a national emergency and using the military in this type of circumstance, and second, I, for one, am extremely uncomfortable with the notion that we’re going to supplant civilian authority by using the military to deal with disasters in the United States, and also as an American, I’m just incredibly ticked off with the notion that we spend $100 billion a year for a new Department of Homeland Security, and we’re letting it get off the hook in terms of its responsibility for this basic function.

AMY GOODMAN: Alison Young, you’ve also been writing about the increased role of the military. What have you found?

ALISON YOUNG: Well, it has long been known that in a major catastrophe, the military would need to play a major role. Hurricane Andrew down in Florida, one of the things that was documented in numerous GAO reports was that they are the only entity in the government that has, you know, the helicopters and the ability to get massive amounts of supplies into an area, so this has long been known, although it’s now being discussed in a way as if it’s come as a surprise.

The issue of should the military be in charge, the issue with Katrina is there doesn’t appear to have been anyone who was in charge. And the question that seems to be not being discussed is, you know, what happened, why wasn’t anyone in charge — before we start asking should the military be in charge, we need to be asking, you know, what happened with Katrina and why can’t a civilian agency make this kind of thing happen.

AMY GOODMAN: William Arkin, in just a minute we’re going to go to a peace protest around the invasion of Iraq, but you write about Michael Brown being set up and about the same obsession that led the Bush administration to see weapons of mass destruction and terrorism in every tea leaf and go to war in Iraq now guides the entire federal government disaster response effort; how do you prove this point?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, I think that you have to look at that very national response plan that people have been referring to today and other Department of Homeland Security emergency planning documents to see quite clearly what the emphasis of this new department has been since 9/11, and that’s terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. I went through the documents and counted up how many times weapons of mass destruction and terrorism were mentioned versus how many times natural disasters, earthquakes, and hurricanes were mentioned, and I think the final score was something like 1200 mentions of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to 45 mentions of hurricanes and earthquakes, and — I mean, it’s a clever way of making my case, but the truth of the matter is that even when you look at the catastrophic incident annex of the national response plan, that is the annex that in theory should have guided expeditious federal actions in Louisiana and Mississippi, the truth of the matter is that it’s biased towards preparing for a terrorist or weapons of mass destruction event.

It’s not biased towards a natural disaster, and so I think that the question of sort of authorities, the question of preparations, the question of how the military knits with the civil government and how the civil government uses those resources of the military have not been resolved because the government has been mesmerized by a new mission, which is counter-terrorism and preparing for a weapons of mass destruction incident in American cities and has not just paid attention to the bread and butter of natural disasters.

Now, having said that, of course, I do have to agree with one thing that Michael Brown said yesterday at his hearing, which is that FEMA as a corporate entity, the FEMA professionals, have and do focus on this question, and there’s really no need for a reorganization of government in that regard, but I think that this notion that somehow because Michael Brown was incompetent and in above his head, that somehow a bunch of 18-year-olds with guns in the American military are going to be disaster preparedness and disaster response specialists for the American public is just completely and utterly ridiculous. The U.S. military ingests about 35,000 18-year-olds every year to put through basic training, to essentially be cannon fodder in American military activities, and the notion that somehow these young kids are going to be the disaster response specialists that FEMA is, I think is not only wrong-headed but, obviously, it would raise a whole set of new problems on American streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, William Arkin, I want to thank you for joining us, author of Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World_, also a blogger at WashingtonPost.com, Early Warningw.html is that blog; as well as Alison Young, a reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers. Thanks for joining us.

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