By Ruth Conniff
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The swine flu outbreak raises a lot of fears.
Here’s one you might not have thought of yet: The Pentagon may be taking over more and more of our civil society in this crisis.
Back in 2002, President Bush created NorthCom, the Pentagon’s Northern Command, which has jurisdiction over the United States.
And NorthCom has been running preparedness drills in the event of a flu pandemic for at least the past three years.
Making things more alarming, NorthCom got assigned its own fighting unit six months ago—the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, which had spent much of the last five years battling things out in Iraq.
The assignment of that fighting unit alarmed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “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.
Testifying in March, General Victor Renuart, head of NorthCom, said it would provide “assistance in support of civil authorities” during an epidemic. And, he added, “when requested and approved by the Secretary of Defense or directed by the President, federal military forces will contribute to federal support.” But he boasted: “USNorthCom does not wait for that call to action.”
He noted that NorthCom has prepared for a flu outbreak from Mexico. “Because Mexico is our neighbor and disasters do not respect national boundaries, we are focused on developing and improving procedures to respond to potentially catastrophic events such as pandemic influenza outbreak, mass exposure to dangerous chemicals and materials, and natural disasters,” he testified.
NorthCom also has a “private sector cell,” Renuart said in a talk to the Heritage Foundation on August 20, 2008. “We have great participation from industry and from other organizations around the country.”
One private sector group that has worked with the FBI and Homeland Security on pandemics is InfraGard. This is group of more than 30,000 businesspeople who have special access to confidential FBI information and may be assigned specialand lethalduties in times of an emergency (See “The FBI Deputizes Business”).
An InfraGard chapter held a meeting at NYU Medical Center on February 21, 2007 on “Pandemic Preparedness Planning: the Case for Public-Private Collaboration”.
InfraGard also participated in a conference entitled “Surviving the Pandemic,” held in Madison, Wisconsin, October 12, 2006. That conference was co-sponsored by the Southeast Wisconsin Homeland Security Partnership, two centers at the University of Wisconsin, the Madison Area Technical College, Alliant Energy, and American Family Insurance.
InfraGard wants to be a player in pandemic response. “Utilization of their expertise will help local communities prepare for a possible pandemic event to ensure minimal disruption and quick recovery,” one InfraGard press release stated.
Whether and how InfraGard and NorthCom might be working together in this swine flu outbreak is unclear.
Similarly, it is unclear what actions NorthCom might take if an all-out pandemic ensues.
One last concern: George W. Bush bestowed upon the Presidency enormous powers, essentially to be in charge of every branch of government, as well as state and local and tribal governments and the private sector, in the event of a “catastrophic emergency.” (See National Security Presidential Directive 51)
We’re in a public health emergency now. It’s not “catastrophic” yet. But it appears to be up to the President—and the President only—to make that determination, according to the directive.
Congress needs to hold hearings on NorthCom, InfraGard, and National Security Presidential Directive 51.
We must insist on our rights, even in emergencies.