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U.S. mulls federal troops for bird flu quarantine

The Pentagon is looking at the possibility of using federal troops to enforce a quarantine in the event of an outbreak of pandemic bird flu in the United States, a senior official said.
/ Source: Reuters

The Pentagon is looking at the possibility of using federal troops to enforce a quarantine in the event of an outbreak of pandemic bird flu in the United States, a senior official said on Wednesday. President Bush said last week he would consider using the military to “effect a quarantine” in response to any outbreak of avian influenza, but provided few details.

Bush at the time also suggested he might place National Guard troops, normally commanded by state governors, under federal control as part of the government’s response to the “catastrophe” of such a flu pandemic.

Paul McHale, assistant defense secretary for homeland defense, said quarantine law historically has been under the primary jurisdiction of states, not the federal government.

“And my expectation is that any quarantine measures that would be put in place would likely involve a substantial employment of the National Guard, probably under command and control of the governor of an affected state,” McHale told a group of reporters.

“However, we are looking at a wide range of contingencies, potentially involving Title 10 forces (federal troops) if a pandemic outbreak of a biological threat were to occur,” McHale added.

The H5N1 avian influenza virus has killed or forced the destruction of tens of millions of birds and infected more than 100 people, killing at least 60 in four Asian nations since late 2003.

Experts fear that the virus, known to pass to humans from birds, could mutate and start to spread easily from person to person, potentially killing millions worldwide. Experts have questioned America’s preparedness.

McHale said he believed there would be a clearer understanding within a few weeks of the military role in response to pandemic bird flu as part of a broader federal response. Pentagon officials were meeting on Wednesday to discuss the department’s role in a flu pandemic.

Legal barriers
One issue that could face the U.S. government in the event of an outbreak is whether or how to cordon off parts of the country to prevent the disease from spreading.

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, enacted during the post-Civil War reconstruction period, prohibits federal military personnel from taking part in law-enforcement within the United States. But a president can waive the law in an emergency.

National Guard troops under the command of state governors are permitted to perform law enforcement duties, but would not be permitted to do so if they were put under federal control.

McHale noted that the military has been used only under extraordinary circumstances for domestic law enforcement and restoring civil order.

While not specifically referring to enforcing a quarantine, McHale said the Pentagon has active-duty federal military units on alert and deployable at the direction of the president “to deal with occurrences of massive civil disturbance.” He did not identify the units.

On the topic of possible domestic attack involving biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, McHale said the government needs “a more robust civilian capability” to respond so the country is not exclusively dependent on the military.

McHale said the Pentagon is working to help make the Department of Homeland Security better able to make strategic plans for natural disasters or domestic attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. The department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency was strongly criticized for its slow response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the U.S. Gulf Coast in August.