Morning Edition, September 22, 2005 Â· Federal troops assisting local governments with disaster relief are not allowed to engage in law enforcement, according to the 1878 law known as the Posse Comitatus Act. But the Bush administration, the Pentagon and members of Congress are considering loosening that longstanding restriction.
This might be a really scary thing, if they are in fact talking about allowing federal troops to operate as Law Enforcement in the U.S. While I do not think that this administration would abuse those powers, I am not as confident that all of the administrations in the future would be as trustworthy. If the current administration does start to ask for these powers, I will be greatly troubled.
Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
Evidently, it can be overridden in certain cases, such as:
* National Guard units while under the authority of the governor of a state;
* Troops when used pursuant to the Federal authority to quell domestic violence as was the case during the 1992 Los Angeles riots;
* The President of the United States can waive this law in an emergency;
* In December 1981 additional laws were enacted (codified 10 USC 371-78) clarifying permissible military assistance to civilian law enforcement agenciesâ€”including the Coast Guardâ€”especially in combating drug smuggling into the United States. Posse Comitatus clarifications emphasize supportive and technical assistance (e.g., use of facilities, vessels, aircraft, intelligence, tech aid, surveillance) while generally prohibiting direct participation of Department of Defense personnel in law enforcement (e.g., search, seizure, and arrests). For example, Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETS) serve aboard Navy vessels and perform the actual boardings of interdicted suspect drug smuggling vessels and, if needed, arrest their crews.
* Under 18 USC 831, the Attorney General may request that the Secretary of Defense provide emergency assistance if civilian law enforcement is inadequate to address certain types of threat involving the release of nuclear materials, such as potential use of a Nuclear or Radiological weapon. Such assistance may be by any personnel under the authority of the Department of Defense, provided such assistance does not adversely affect US military preparedness.
So, it sounds like the president can overcome the act anyways. However, the more layers of red tape between the office of the president and the ability to order our troops to act on our soil in a law enforcement or military manner the better.
I whole-heartily support the Posse Comitatus Act, and would urge folks to contact their representatives and make sure that they stand for the separation of powers that the constitution guarantees us.