WASHINGTON (AP) — The rapid spread of swine flu from Mexico surprised Pentagon officials, who had been focused on a possible Asian-borne pandemic in a response plan that would give the military a last-resort role in helping to impose quarantines and border restrictions.
Drafted and overhauled several times in recent years, the military’s closely guarded plan for an influenza pandemic assumed that officials would have more time before the flu hit U.S. shores. The Associated Press obtained briefing documents about the military’s pandemic contingency plan.
The H1N1 flu outbreak set U.S. military commanders scrambling to monitor and protect troops based near the 2,000-mile southern border and on ships nearby.
The virus spread quickly across the border into Southern California, infecting at least 27 sailors on a ship docked at San Diego, four Marines at Camp Pendleton and at least one Marine at Twentynine Palms. Several dozen Marines have been quarantined, and nearly two dozen other sailors had flu symptoms but have so far not been confirmed as having the H1N1 virus.
“We anticipated scientifically that we would have time to do different things,” said Amy Kircher, an epidemiologist with U.S. Northern Command’s surgeon general’s office. Northern Command oversees the country’s homeland defense, including coordination with Canada and Mexico.
While there are only a limited number of airports and seaports that could provide U.S. entry for the virus from overseas, the military was faced with an almost limitless number of cars, trucks and pedestrians traveling across the easily accessible, expansive border with Mexico.
In an interview with the AP, Kircher and several senior military officers from U.S. Northern Command said that since the swine flu has been far less lethal than anticipated, it has allowed the military to stop far short of the worst-case scenarios that the Pentagon prepared for in its long-range planning.
But in the event of a widespread pandemic, the Pentagon maintains standing plans to use the active-duty military as a last-resort force to help law enforcement manage quarantines, limit state-to-state travel and restrict access to government buildings.
Those plans represent “the kinds of things that the lead federal agencies might ask us to do or that we might have to do on behalf of the Department of Defense for force protection,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Tony Rock, who until recently was deputy director for operations at Northern Command.
Officials would turn to the military for those domestic duties, Rock said, only when other authorities become overburdened and request assistance.
The requests must then be evaluated and approved by top officials, such as the defense secretary or the president.
“Some of these are in extremis, and certainly wouldn’t be the first tasks we would do,” said Army Col. Curt Torrence, a key military planner for Northern Command. He added that they would be carried out only under catastrophic circumstances and in accordance with federal laws.
Northern Command briefing documents obtained by The Associated Press include explicit assumptions that intelligence oversight laws and the Posse Comitatus Act would remain in effect.
Under that Civil War-era act, federal troops are prohibited from performing domestic law enforcement actions such as making arrests, seizing property or searching people.
In extreme cases, however, the president can invoke the Insurrection Act, also from the Civil War, which allows the use of active-duty or National Guard troops for law enforcement.
Under the military’s pandemic plan, the key goals are to defend the country, maintain the force and provide whatever support is needed to protect the national infrastructure and ensure that the government continues to function.
Rock, who recently was named commandant of the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, said states generally would turn first to police, border control officers and the National Guard under the governors’ command. Those public safety officials would be the first line of defense to stem the spread of the virus through travel restrictions at the borders and along state lines or outbreak areas.
The military, however, would be prepared to aid in establishing “mass casualty” treatment sites, provide shelter for displaced persons, dispose of dead bodies and help provide postal, power, water and sewer services and food deliveries. Troops also could provide logistics, communications and other support for law enforcement and the National Guard.
The Defense Department and Northern Command have refused to publicly release the details of their operations plan for pandemic influenza. Labeled “for official use only,” the plan lays out the active-duty military’s six-phase response to an influenza outbreak.
In interviews, Pentagon officials repeatedly expressed concerns about alarming the public, stressing that the plan would only unfold in a crisis situation and under orders from the president.
The plan also includes measures by the Pentagon to protect its own, with the understanding that if the nation’s armed services fall to the flu, it would be difficult to provide aid to those within the U.S. and defend the country in the event of a concurrent terrorist attack or other disaster.
Steps would be taken to immunize soldiers, their families, retirees and civilian workers who support the military’s mission. And, if needed, access in and out of military installations would be restricted.
The military is more vulnerable than most to the spread of disease, because of its very nature. Troops live together, eat together in mess halls, sleep together in barracks and bunk together by the thousands aboard ships.
As a result, said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, “The military has a long and glorious association with pandemics.”
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.
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