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Military wary of disaster role

Some worry that a revision of its homeland mission would take away from war capabilities.

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When President Bush asked Congress this week to consider whether the military should take the leading role in disaster response, he was merely picking up where other politicians have left off. Washington has long sought to induce the Pentagon to take a larger share of homeland security in times of crisis - from the war on drugs to the war on terror.

The notion has enraged civil libertarians and wary members of Congress, who fear the power of a military let loose on its own people. Yet in many respects, the greatest opponent of giving the military more authority at home has been the military itself.

It is a reluctance born of a martial ethos - the insistence that the military exists to fight the nation's wars, not to act as police. The fact that America remains at war in Iraq and Afghanistan has only deepened those reservations. So far, the Department of Defense has not taken a public stance on the president's idea, yet among many in the military community, there is concern that any major revision of the military's homeland mission could be both unnecessary and counterproductive.

"The military needs to focus on its core competencies - fighting wars," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "If we load the military with every mission that other cabinet agencies don't do well, then it won't be able to do its job well."

Indeed, Mr. Bush appears to be turning to the military in part because it was the only federal institution perceived to be competent in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Now, he and others are saying that the military might be the only federal asset able to respond quickly and effectively to disasters that overwhelm local police, fire, and emergency teams - as Katrina did. "Is there a natural disaster of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?" Bush asked at a briefing last weekend.


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