Could It Happen Here?

David Tucker

August 1, 1999

Will one of our enemies try to set off a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon in the United States? Such an attack could kill tens of thousands of people or even destroy an entire city. Could it happen here?

Two recently published reports, one by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, and another by a Commission headed by John Deutch, a former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, take the threat seriously and consider different ways to meet it. But neither of these reports, nor most discussion of this problem, recognizes that the steps we take to meet the threat could harm us more than these weapons of mass destruction.

Most experts, including those at the GAO and on the Commission believe that the threat of an attack in the United States with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is low, although it may be increasing. But, they argue rightly, the consequences of such an attack would be so severe that we have to take steps to prevent such an attack, if possible, and manage its consequences.

The Federal government has begun to do this. Ultimately, its agencies will work with local authorities in 120 of the largest cities in the United States to train the police, firemen, medical personnel and others who respond to disasters. Six of these cities are in Ohio-Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo.

One of the agencies involved in this training is the Department of Defense (DOD). Its involvement is controversial. The threat from weapons of mass destruction has lead some to call for DoD’s resources and expertise to be integrated into our domestic response to terrorism in some comprehensive and permanent way. These people want DOD to make homeland defense a major part of what DOD does. A number of other people question whether DoD’s involvement would be a good idea.

There are several reasons why it would not be. First, permanent, extensive DOD involvement in domestic matters will distract DOD from its primary mission, fighting our foreign enemies, and may make DOD more like domestic, civilian institutions. This will degrade military professionalism, an outcome no one could approve of.

Second, if homeland defense becomes a primary mission for DoD, this could increase the chances of domestic attacks, even with WMD, the exact opposite of what we want. This could happen because our enemies would realize that using such a weapon in the United States would get DOD involved here, leaving them more freedom to work their mischief overseas.

The most important reason to object to having DOD involved in domestic matters, however, is that it would violate our traditional separation of civil and military authority. One reason we enjoy civil liberties in the United States is that we control how all levels of government can use force. Part of these controls is the restriction of military involvement in policing and maintaining civil order. National Guard units, part of the U.S. military, get involved in these matters but under the authority of state Governors.

Some have argued that this separation of police and military is a luxury we can no longer afford because criminal and national security activities are blurring together. Criminals are getting hold of the material for weapons of mass destruction and selling them to terrorists and states, for example. Some argue that such merging of criminal and national security threats requires some similar merging of response capabilities on our part. In fact, throughout human history military and criminal enterprise have typically been merged or at least were indistinguishable. The United States is one of a small number of countries that is free because over hundreds of years its people learned that no matter what others might do, our civil liberties depend in part on giving to separate agencies of government the responsibility for dealing with crime and military force.

Isn’t this concern with civil liberties over done, some might ask? Are we really in danger of a military government? Could it happen here? As with a WMD attack, the likelihood may be low, but the consequence would be so terrible that we should take precautions against it. Even assuming that the threat of WMD terrorism in the United States is growing, we should only consider diminishing our traditional protection of civil liberties if there is no other way to deal with this threat. But there is. DoD can transfer the expertise it has to an appropriate non-military agency, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which the Congress could then appropriately fund. Respect for military professionalism and our civil liberties should make us take that approach.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.