What Is NorthCom Up To?
ON OCTOBER 1, THE PENTAGON, for the first time ever, dedicated an Army force specifically to secure not some foreign region but the United States of America. The Pentagon assigned the unit to the U.S. Northern Command, or NorthCom, which George W. Bush established on October 1, 2002.
The unit is the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, which has spent three of the last five years in Iraq. The 4,700 dedicated force was one of the first to get to Baghdad, and it was active in patrolling Ramadi. One of its specialties is counterinsurgency.
This marks a change for NorthCom. Its website says it “has few permanently assigned forces,” and that “the command is assigned forces whenever necessary to execute missions, as ordered by the President and the Secretary of Defense.”
The new assignment may be illegal.
“This is a radical departure from separation of civilian law enforcement and military authority and could, quite possibly, represent a violation of law,” said Mike German, ACLU national security policy counsel. “Our Founding Fathers understood the threat that a standing army could pose to American liberty.”
Having the military get its own dedicated force for operations within the United States may run afoul of the Insurrection Act and the Posse Comitatus Act.
Senator Patrick Leahy, who rolled back an effort by Bush to gut those laws, has “asked for a briefing from his staff” on this development and “wants to monitor the situation,” an aide to Leahy said.
The roles the 1st Brigade Combat Team will take on at NorthCom are a bit unclear. The unit will “respond to potential chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) incidents in the homeland,” NorthCom’s September 30 press release states.
But initial reporting by the Army Times suggested that NorthCom’s soldiers would do more than that.
“They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control,” said the Army Times. They “will learn how to use ‘the first ever nonlethal package that the Army has fielded,’ ” Colonel Roger Cloutier of the 1st Brigade said, referring to “crowd and traffic control equipment and nonlethal weapons,” the article noted.
The Army Times later stated that the “nonlethal crowd control package” is “intended for use on deployments to the war zone, not in the U.S.”
NorthCom also denied that it would be involved in civil patrols. “This response force will not be called upon to help with law enforcement, civil disturbance, or crowd control,” its press release said.
The 3rd Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team is only the beginning for NorthCom. “We’ll grow two more of these forces over the coming years,” NorthCom’s commander, General Victor Renuart, said in an October 24 speech at the Brookings Institution. By 2011, NorthCom “will have three capable, trained consequence management response forces ready to deploy should they be needed to support national policy,” he said.
Renuart acknowledged the tricky constitutional place he occupies.
“We monitor every day the activities that we are undertaking to ensure that they do not cross the boundaries of constitutional limitations of use of military in the homeland,” he said. “Trust me. I have sixteen lawyers that stand around every day looking for nothing better than for us to push . . . outside of the bounds of one of those limitations.”
He addressed squarely “the policy of Posse Comitatus.” He gave the following rebuttal: “This force is not a legal law enforcement force. This force is not designed to use military to suppress in any way.”
But NorthCom has shown a keen interest in gathering intelligence on counter-recruitment protesters. “The security people at USNorthCom . . . had begun noticing some trouble at a few military recruiting events in 2005,” Eric Lichtblau recounts in Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice. “Military officials at NorthCom asked their counterparts at CIFA [the Pentagon’s CounterIntelligence Field Activity] to ping their powerful new database . . . and find out how many episodes of violence and disruption were actually imperiling their recruiters.” As Lichtblau notes, “Out from the system spat dozens of disparate leads and files that had nothing to do with violent attacks or disruption against military installations, or anything else that might conceivably fall under the wide umbrella of terrorist attacks.”
This was the so-called Talon database, the Pentagon’s surveillance of some 263 nonviolent protests around the country. These included spying on the American Friends Service Committee, CodePink, Veterans for Peace, the War Resisters League, and many college anti-war groups. “The United States military improperly kept tabs on lawful, nonviolent, First Amendment activities,” the ACLU says. According to Lichtblau, when a senior official saw a summary of the NorthCom findings, he asked: “Why do we have this stuff in here? Why are we talking about protest activities?”
NorthCom even was in the loop at the Republican Convention in St. Paul last summer. “We did not participate in any intelligence collection,” Colonel Michael Boatner, future operations division chief of NorthCom, told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! “We were up there in support of the U.S. Secret Service. We provided some explosive ordnance disposal support of the event.” He added that NorthCom was “just doing routine screens and scans of the area in advance of this kind of a vulnerable event. It’s pretty standard support.” It included, he said, “dozens and dozens of dog detection teams.”
At Brookings, Renuart acknowledged that NorthCom works actively with the FBI’s joint terrorism task force and other intelligence agencies.
“Every day our command center monitors between thirty-five and forty-five events around the United States that might require federal support,” he said. “We can monitor the pulse of our nation. . . . Monitoring that information on a routine basis is part of our daily battle rhythm.”
He also said he is in regular contact with all fifty state governments, sixty federal agencies with “liaison cells in our headquarters,” all the military services and the National Guard, as well as “private sector entities who are responsible in some way to be engaged when a domestic incident occurs.”
Renuart elaborated on the private sector’s role when he gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation on August 20, 2008. NorthCom has a “private sector cell,” he said. “We have great participation from industry and from other organizations around the country who are interested in helping their own citizens.” He mentioned “Wal-Mart and Fed-Ex and Home Depot,” as well as a group called Business Executives for National Security. He added that “there are a number of faith-based organizations that we remain in contact with.” He noted that Homeland Security also has a “private sector cell,” and he touted the cooperation. “Between the two of us,” he said, “we’re creating information management tools that will allow us to have a better understanding of where some of these institutions and organizations have reserve capability out there that they can apply to a domestic situation.” (This private sector involvement reminds me of InfraGard, the FBI-private sector group that now has 28,000 members. I wrote about it in “The FBI Deputizes Business,” in The Progressive’s March 2008 issue.)
At the Heritage Foundation, he also acknowledged that NorthCom does “support law enforcement agencies . . . with collaboration on intelligence information.”
Some military planners are explicit that there may come a time when it will be necessary to use the Pentagon for purposes of suppression here in the United States.
A November 2008 report from the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute discusses the “DoD’s role in combating ‘domestic enemies.’ ” The report is entitled “Known Unknowns: Unconventional ‘Strategic Shocks’ in Defense Strategy Development.” The author is Nathan Freier, who retired last year after serving in the Army for twenty years. A lieutenant colonel, he was the director of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College, and before that, he worked in the Pentagon on national defense strategy.
The report tries to anticipate unusual threats to the United States. It discusses some “adverse conditions” and “contextual threats,” citing among them “the unguided forces of globalization, toxic populism, identity politics, underdevelopment, human/natural disaster, and disease.”
Later in the report, there is a section entitled “Politics, Economics, Social Action, and Political Violence as Hybrid War.” One example it cites is “a China-Russia axis that collectively employs substantial political power within international institutions and markets to hold key American interests at risk.” But it also conjures up an example here at home. “At the national and subnational level, purposeful opponents could synchronize nonmilitary effort, agitating quasi-legitimate proxies into concerted social action and precision political violence targeted at nullifying traditional U.S. military advantages.” The author goes on to quote favorably from another study that talks about “a new era of containment with the United States as the nation to be contained.” Freier warns that the Pentagon is not prepared for a conflict with “predominantly nonviolent ways and means.”
When the report gets down to specific threats, it focuses not just on the collapse of a strategic state or a natural disaster or pandemic.
“Pushing at the boundaries of current convention, it would be prudent to add catastrophic dislocation inside the United States or homegrown domestic civil disorder and/or violence,” it says.
The report dives right in, reminding Pentagon officials that they swear an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. “DoD’s role in combating ‘domestic enemies’ has never been thoughtfully examined,” it says. “Thus, there is perhaps no greater source of strategic shock for DoD than operationalizing that component of the oath of service in a widespread domestic emergency that entails rapid dissolution of public order in all or significant parts of the United States.”
This dissolution of public order could come about by many means, including “unforeseen economic collapse” and “purposeful domestic resistance or insurgency,” the report says.
The Pentagon “might be forced by circumstances to put its broad resources at the disposal of civil authorities to contain and reverse violent threats to domestic tranquility,” the report says. “Under the most extreme circumstances, this might include the use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States.”
The report anticipates a martial law situation. “Civilian authorities, on advice of the defense establishment, would need to rapidly determine the parameters defining the legitimate use of military force inside the United States,” it says. “Further still, the whole concept of conflict termination and/or transition to the primacy of civilian security institutions would be uncharted ground.”
The branch of the Pentagon that would most likely be plowing this uncharted ground is NorthCom.
NorthCom may also venture further north. At Brookings, Renuart talked about the Arctic, asking: “How do we see the emergence of resource markets in that region? Should there be a military strategy or not?”
He elaborated on the potential of the Arctic when he spoke at the Heritage Foundation. “We’ve been working within our department to think about the Arctic in ways that project out twenty-five years,” he said. “We don’t know for sure how much of a resource pool there is there, but I think speculation is, and most scientists would agree, there are untapped elements of natural resources that are worthy of harvesting.”
At the Heritage Foundation, Renuart also talked about the growing ties between Canada’s military and NorthCom. “I’m really pleased with the size of the commitment that Canada has made,” he said, citing the “coordination and cooperation between Canada Command and Northern Command as we look at events that may affect the two nations in the civil support areas.”
Renuart was referring to an agreement with Canada that allows U.S. troops to go into that country, and Canadian troops to come into ours.
The document is entitled “Canada-U.S. Civil Assistance Plan,” and it is dated February 14, 2008. The document is signed, for Canada, by Lieutenant-General M. J. Dumais, commander of its Canada Command, and, for the United States, by General Renuart.
“The purpose of the Canada-United States Civil Assistance Plan (CAP) is to provide a framework for the military of one nation to provide support to the military of the other nation in the performance of civil support operations (e.g., floods, forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and effects of a terrorist attack),” the document says. This framework is designed “to save lives, prevent human suffering, and mitigate damage to property.”
The plan anticipates scenarios for using violence. “Opposing forces are not expected during the conduct of operations described in this plan,” it says. “However . . . commanders should consider the following Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection issues: (1) Terrorists organizations could conduct operations against the Canadian or U.S. force, or in the civil support operations area; (2) State/provincial and local police capabilities could be severely degraded in the area of operations, allowing a corresponding rise in criminal activity that could affect the Canadian or U.S. force; and (3) Environmental factors ranging from weather to contamination and disease could significantly affect the Canadian or U.S. forces.”
The plan does not discuss any law enforcement responsibilities.
“Support for law enforcement operations is not covered in this plan,” the document says. But it adds, intriguingly, that such support “will be included in the Canada-United States Combined Defense Plan.”
I called NorthCom for a copy of the combined defense plan. “That is actually a classified document,” a NorthCom spokesman said.
At the end of Renuart’s talk at the Brookings Institution, he took questions. Carl Osgood of Executive Intelligence Review asked him the following: “How does NorthCom see its role in the event of a civil disturbance, let’s say a repeat of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, that sort of event? And, secondly, could you talk a little bit about—more about intelligence sharing between NorthCom and law enforcement. I mean domestic intelligence?”
Renuart didn’t answer the civil disturbance question. As to the second one, he said: “There are very specific provisions for intelligence oversight, and as they apply to NorthCom within the homeland, we have very, very precise guidelines on information that may come to us about U.S. persons, and we are not allowed to maintain any of that information. That has to be given to law enforcement agencies. . . . We are oversensitive in terms of this.”
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