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Homeland security expert Frank Cilluffo discusses disaster relief

Interviewer: Eben Kaplan
Interviewee: Frank Cilluffo, Homeland Security Policy Institute, George Washington University
September 23, 2005

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Frank Cilluffo, associate vice president for homeland security at George Washington University and director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute, talks about federalizing disaster relief, the Posse Comitatus Act that limits the use of the military for civilian law enforcement, and the balance of power between state and federal authorities during a disaster. He spoke to cfr.org’s Eben Kaplan on September 22, 2005.

What role do the armed forces play in disaster relief? Is this adequate?

You’ve got to understand the entire process in terms of how we plan, prepare for, and respond to natural disasters. It’s all predicated on a complex system-of-systems approach between the federal government, state government, and local government. Federal resources are in support of state and local authorities and that, I think should continue—short of upending our entire federalist form of government—to be the case. I do feel that where assets are needed or lacking—when you’re looking at logistics, providing situational awareness, transportation assets, mass air evacuations as we’re looking at right now—those resources are by and large owned within our military and armed services. So making sure they can play a role in support of our state and local authorities and of our overall federal efforts is, I think, crucial. A lot of the discussion has been focused on [the] Posse Comitatus [Act of 1878], which I don’t think really addresses the issues we’re trying to get at; I think it somewhat misses the mark. Posse Comitatus as a law prohibits the Department of Defense and the military [from performing] law-enforcement functions. It doesn’t address some of the logistical issues we’re all trying to get our arms around here. The bottom line is you turn to where the capability is. I don’t think the American people will care what color uniform the men and women saving lives happen to be wearing, whether green, blue, red, or what have you. We want to be able to maximize the capacity and make sure we can bring the resources to where the need exists as rapidly as we can.

Posse Comitatus prevents the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force from engaging in law enforcement, but it doesn’t apply to the National Guard, right?

You're correct, the Guard can continue to play a law enforcement function if the governor designates it to play that role, but once federalized, it cannot engage in law enforcement.

What should the role of the National Guard be in disaster relief operations, as opposed to its role in operations abroad?

I don’t think there are either/or propositions. I’ve written and testified in the past that the National Guard should play a significant role in homeland defense and homeland security missions. For starters, every governor needs to know what capacities and capabilities they have under the hood, in terms of knowing what resources can be brought to bear. If they are spread thin and deployed, you need to recognize that and try to get cooperative agreements with neighboring states and or federal assets and resources.

Then-General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, once said, “In preparation for battle I have often found plans to be useless, but planning to be indispensable.” The idea here [is], you’ve got to have plans in place, but you need to be able to adapt to the fog of the situation. In the civilian environment, you have the same needs and requirements, which predicate the significance and the importance of training, exercising, and continually coordinating. What makes this so complex is everyone has a role to play, but we need to continually refine that.

During this interface of federal and local authorities, how is it determined who’s in charge?

A vast majority of natural disasters are within the realm of state and local authorities. In the most extreme cases, you could declare an insurrection, where irrespective of the [state and local] government, you federalize and there could be times when that’s needed. Take homeland security from a counterterrorism standpoint: In all likelihood, you’re not going to get any warning. The success is going to be determined within those [first] forty-eight hours by state and local authorities because the [federal] resources just can’t get there that rapidly. I do think it has to hinge upon and be based entirely on state and local [capacities], that’s the primary focus. Where capabilities fall short is where federal resources come into play. I think what we’re seeing right now, in terms of response to [Hurricane] Rita, is the Department of Defense playing a more significant role from an evacuation and logistics standpoint.

How do disaster-relief operations affect our military’s ability to fight wars abroad?

That’s a very good question. Obviously, we have limited resources and capabilities. In terms of looking at the role of the military abroad, clearly its primary mission is to prosecute and win wars. We also have come to understand that they’re the ones with mass capability—along with some of the private sector entities like Wal-Mart, FedEx, UPS, and others who have very sophisticated supply-chain logistics infrastructures. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer; you can’t take a snapshot in time and try to overlay that, because who knows? Since the end of the Cold War, threat forecasting has made astrology look respectable. I’m not sure we know five years from now what situations we’ll be in. So I don’t think you can pull [the armed forces] away from their primary missions, but at the same time, they do have a role to play domestically.

How would you change the current structure of our disaster response?

There are legal implications, and it’s not necessarily the law but the meaning behind the law [that is at issue]. We don’t want to get too caught up in processes at the expense of doing what needs to be done. I think there are also cultural issues that are very deep that we need to address.

On the training side, there are also resources problems. The role of FEMA at the federal level is basically a coordination function: They don’t have boots. They don’t have the resources logistically or transportation-wise that the Department of Defense has. You’ll see that the coast Guard is beginning to play [a role]: The principle federal official—the PFO as it’s referred to under the National Response Plan—for Ophelia was a Coast Guard officer, and for [Hurricane] Rita it is also a Coast Guard officer. I think on critical infrastructure protection, [the] federal government can play a more significant role to identify what infrastructures are potentially vulnerable to attack and natural disasters. We have the IP shop—the infrastructure protection shop—within the Department of Homeland Security, which I think will continue to play a larger role.

You’ll find that the Department of Defense will play a significant role—situational awareness in terms of assets in the air to get a better handle on what’s going on. In terms of straight-up logistics, I also think you’re going to see a greater role in terms of transportation, because ultimately you’ve got to evacuate people. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong or quick answer to this, but I do think you’re going to see the military play a more significant role.

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