The changing of the guard -- America's citizen sold
By Jon Bonné

Deep inside a stout tan building, row upon row of soldiers watch radar screens, scanning the skies for any possible threat. Amid unprecedented domestic levels of alert, one of the American military’s most crucial defense tasks in the past half-century is being run by none other than the National Guard. Since Sept 11., the Guard has enjoyed a newfound sense of mission, but with it has come a growing turf battle over who — and what — should define that mission.

Nestled in the lush evergreen woods here, the Western Air Defense Sector (known by the grin-inducing acronym WADS) monitors U.S. and Canadian airspace from central Texas to the Pacific. It is the western outpost of the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD), responsible for some 63 percent of the land in the contiguous United States.

In 1995, amid major Air Force overhauls, WADS was turned over to the National Guard. A rotating contingent of Guard members staffs terminals every moment of every day, monitoring 80,000 aircraft paths every 24 hours. If something needs scrutiny, they can call upon a broad range of civilian and military agencies — or, if need be, scramble a fighter jet for an intercept.

Since last fall’s terror attacks, their role has proven invaluable to domestic defense.

“We’re at a fairly intense level of ops,” said Col. John E. “Junior” Bonner, the Sector’s director of support. Since the attacks, Bonner said, there have been 300 “things that we’ve looked at.”

Among the soldiers, there is a clear understanding: If another attack comes from the air, it’s their job to stop it.

Key to homeland strategy
On any day before Sept. 11, about 5,000 Guard members might have been deployed. Since then, the number on active duty has jumped more than tenfold, hitting levels seen only during the Persian Gulf war. It is what the Washington State Guard’s Col. Rick Patterson calls “an unprecedented time.”

Guard members have key roles in an emerging strategy for protecting the United States against what some in the military call a “loss of sanctuary” — another terror strike on American soil. Working overseas with full-time military and helping keep peace at home, the Guard has made the best of a dual mandate which stretches back to the Revolutionary War.

Yet those twin roles underscore the key challenge in domestic defense: how to accomplish the intricate tango between federal and local priorities.

“It’s a dilemma. Those people cannot be in two places at once,” said retired Army Col. John Brinkerhoff, who oversaw civil defense programs as a senior FEMA official in the 1980s. “If you’re going to maintain forces to respond if there’s an incident [on U.S. soil] ... those people are not going to be available at the same time for their primary federal mission.”

Shifting identity
Skills honed by the Guard’s half-million members — anything from refueling jet fighters to handling biohazards or even drug interdiction — have put them high on homeland security resource lists. “By calling citizen soldiers,” said Patterson, “you leave your standing services intact for other contingencies.”

Image: Terror Insurance Costs Skyrocket
An armed Guardsman patrols San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge last November. After perceived threats to bridges throughout the state, officials placed Guard members on alert.
Its modern role stems from the days after the gulf war, when the military’s Bold Shift initiative recrafted Guard ranks as primary reserves for the Army and Air Force. Those efforts bore some fruit — the Pentagon chose the Guard to operate NORAD’s regional commands, such as WADS, to patrol skies over the United States and Canada.

But it also prompted an identity crisis. Even as Guard officials sought a wider domestic role, they had to train and prepare to bolster active U.S. forces. Was there a primary mission? Who should be trained for what?

Sept. 11 brought many of the answers.

Guard officials insist they are well-prepared for their dual mission, and they point out their ranks — nearly 500,000 members — are as large as the active ranks of the Army and larger than other active branches of the armed forces. That sort of readiness is neither easy nor cheap. The Pentagon paid over $12 billion in fiscal year 2001 for training, equipment, overhead and much of the Guard’s payroll. States provide billions more.

But Guard observers say strength in the ranks won’t resolve questions about the dual chain of command — members take oaths to both their governor and to the president — or the growing concerns over cooperation between local officials and the Bush administration that existed even before Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge was brought to Washington to coordinate homeland security. As turf battles grow over domestic defense, the Guard is squarely in the middle.

Multiple chains of command
Despite the fray, some Guard units have seized upon their position in the middle to help untangle at least some of these issues.

WADS, for example, keeps direct lines to the Federal Aviation Administration and local civilian agencies, as well as the three other U.S. air defense sectors and NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. Staffers command both civilian and military resources.

Some are full-time Guard members; others were part-timers called up to serve after Sept. 11. Since then, all have worked for the National Command Authority: President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and some top civilian deputies.

But lines of command are rarely so clear, given that any member or unit can be brought into service under one of three options:

  • Governors can call up their state Guard with sole discretion, in which case they are paid for with state funds. This includes such missions as crowd control or fighting wildfires.
  • Federal officials can call up the Guard, but leave them under state control, a method known as Title 32 for the federal law which allows for it. Costs are shared, though most are charged to the federal budget.
  • Guard members may be called for full military duty under Title 10 of federal code, which leaves them under control of the president and the Defense Department. They are then considered federal soldiers and are paid solely with federal funds.

The war against terrorism, with its blurring of national boundaries, has left the Guard with many roles to fill and no end of questions about how to pay for their efforts. For managerial — and legal — reasons, officials try to keep some separation between foreign and domestic needs.

“We are resourced and funded for the war fight,” Col. Jeff Mathis, chief of homeland security for the National Guard Bureau, said. “However, we are prepared to serve in Title 32 status to prepare for, deter, and if it happens, respond to an act of terrorism.”

Guard patrols at commercial airports fell under that status. Such duties are nothing new: For over a decade, Guard members have been called under Title 32 to help in counterdrug operations and other assistance with Customs work at U.S. borders.

'Ignoring history'?
But since Sept. 11, the administration has shown a preference for Title 10, which gives control directly to the federal executive. WADS, for example, was moved completely under Title 10 — a status usually reserved for overseas missions. Indeed, before Sept. 11, Title 10 deployments within U.S. borders were used for only for the most dire civil disturbances, such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The Changing of the Guard -- Citizen soldiers at a crossroads -- Helping hands at N.Y. brigde -- Vigilant eyes on the skies
Yet Title 10 has been used in the past seven months to call up as many as 1,700 Guard members to help patrol U.S. borders. Many governors and federal lawmakers — and some Guard officials — have decried its use for purely domestic roles.

“Is America ready for federal troops on the border? There’s something that kind of cuts against our culture,” said John Goheen, director of communications for the National Guard Association of the United States. “Why are we ignoring 365 years of history?”

The border mission also raises a legal issue: a possible violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits federal troops from law enforcement within the United States.

In past years, the Guard has been called on for such paramilitary roles precisely because it can serve under state command. But Title 10 strips Guard members of some rights. Those on border duty, for example, have been sent without weapons — unlike the Guard members on airport duty, who visibly carried service pistols and machine guns.

That decision prompted harsh words from 58 senators, who told President Bush in a March letter: “We simply want Guard forces who might be in harm’s way to have the ability to protect themselves.”

State-federal tensions
Moreover, governors insist Title 10 cuts them out of the loop, and say they have the right to weigh in on Guard duties — “whether they augment airports, the nuclear power plants, the border, whatever,” said Nolan Jones, director of the human resources committee at the National Governors Association.

That growing tension is, observers say, indicative of a growing trend since Sept. 11 by the Bush administration to centralize domestic security, even though much of the work is ultimately done on the local level.

“There are people in Washington who’d like to federalize everything, including this,” said Dr. Bernard Rostker, who served as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in the Clinton administration and as undersecretary of the Army. “There are people in the Pentagon who are eager to have the Army in charge.”

By contrast, Rotsker argues, New York’s handling of the days after the attack on the World Trade Center stands as an excellent example of how to manage that delicate balance of political wills.

“You didn’t see a general show up in New York, you saw the governor and the mayor — and five days later the president showed up,” said Rotsker, now a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation. “That seems about right.”

Seeking a path
The Guard’s long-term mission will likely be clarified by a national security strategy document expected this July by Ridge’s office, and many units will presumably be integrated into the Pentagon’s newly announced homeland defense command.

But strategic decisions have thus far been shaped with little input from those outside senior administration circles. “It’s very tight-lipped,” one federal official who works with the military told “Things are just being very much constricted to the highest levels.”

Guard officials remain optimistic they can navigate a successful path through all this.

They pride themselves as being “Civilian in Peace, Soldier in War,” but the current fight is one that upends the very definitions of those words.

To that end, some suggest the Guard, with its costly overhead and full military training, should stick to its role as a reserve force and be augmented with state defense forces conducting local security. Brinkerhoff, who saw up close how domestic security worked during the Cold War, even argued in an article in the Journal of Homeland Security that state militias — local groups often geared to retired soldiers and ceremonial duties — be retasked to handle local defense.

“The issue isn’t what the Guard could do, the issue is what the Guard ought to do,” Brinkerhoff said. “Can the Guard be used in those instances? Yes. But can we do that on a permanent basis? The answer may be no.”

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