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Governors resist Reserve plan


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POSTED: Friday, August 21, 2009

Gov. Linda Lingle has joined other state chief executives in opposing a congressional proposal that would expand the Pentagon's control of Reserve troops in domestic disasters.

Maj. Gen. Bob Lee, who as state adjutant general controls Hawaii's 5,500 Hawaii Army and Air Guard troops, said the proposal could lead to confusion about who's in charge during natural and man-made disasters and could result in duplicate response levels.

Opponents—such as the National Governors Association—are stepping up efforts to head off any Pentagon attempt to have that authorization included in the 2010 Defense Authorization Act, which goes before House and Senate negotiators next month after the congressional recess. They say the Pentagon needs to first resolve the question of who controls all military forces during a domestic disaster—a power the association says should be left in the hands of governors.

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he “;absolutely supports”; the position taken by the governors association.

“;I commend them for it,”; he said. “;What the Pentagon is doing is a fundamental threat to our government.”;

Abercrombie, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces, said the proposal is “;clearly unconstitutional”; and stems from a Bush administration decision in 2002 to create the Northern Command, giving it the authority to control the Pentagon's homeland defense and coordinate civil support missions.

“;Now they are trying to figure out something for that command to do,”; Abercrombie added. “;That authority should remain with the nation's governors.”;

A similar proposal to expand the power of the president to order Reserve component forces other than the National Guard to active duty for domestic emergencies died last year.

Lt. Col. Almarah Belk, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates is only seeking authorization to mobilize the Reserves based on the ideas of the governors. She said the Pentagon proposal would only involve members or units of the Army Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Navy Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve.

Yesterday, the association sent a two-page letter to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ranking Republican of the Senate Armed Services Committee, outlining its opposition to the Pentagon proposal. A similar letter of protest was sent to Paul N. Stockton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, earlier this month.

“;The Department of Defense should engage with the community of governors to work out an understanding of unity of effort during domestic terrorist events and public emergencies,”; Govs. Jim Douglas, R-Vt., and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., wrote on behalf of the group. “;This key underlying issue must be addressed to allow this and other promising proposals to be enacted.”;

The Army and Air National Guard are state militias subject only to the control of governors until they are mobilized by the president. Other reserve components, like the Army Reserve and the Navy Reserve, are part of the federal military force and under direct control of the president. There are 3,500 Army Reserve soldiers in Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa.

Belk said the Pentagon can send in active-duty troops to aid states only after a governor has requested help though the Department of Homeland Security.

Reserve troops cannot be ordered to active duty to aid in natural disasters even when they may be the closest to the disaster area and would be the most timely and cost-effective response, she said. The Pentagon's proposal would allow Gates to mobilize Reserve troops for up to 60 days in a four-month period and up to 120 days in a two-year period.

After the terrorist attacks in 2001, Belk said Congress gave the president the authority to mobilize the Reserves and the National Guard to respond to terrorist and weapons of mass destruction attacks. “;The proposal would give the secretary parallel authority,”; Belk added, “;to mobilize the reserves in times of catastrophic natural disasters.”;

She pointed out that during last summer's wildfires in Southern California, the Pentagon was unable to use the Marines and helicopters assigned to a reserve unit at Camp Pendleton to fight the blaze.

There are Reserve units in every state that could be deployed during a domestic disaster, Belk said. “;This would make the pool even larger,”; she added.

David Quam, spokesman for the National Governors Association, said governors want the question of “;tactical control”; of all military forces during a disaster addressed first. He said that can be done by the Pentagon establishing a Council of Governors as required by the 2008 Defense Authorization Act to address these issues.