(HOST) This week, commentator Bill Seamans has been reflect- ing on real and potential losses, of a good friend on the one hand and civil liberties on the other.
(SEAMANS) Peter Jennings was a friend and a colleague during my years at ABC News, and I share the profound sadness of his loss…. But now, after more than several days of well deserved accolades, and knowing Peter’s impatience with protocol, I can almost hear him say, “Okay, Bill, enough has been said. Let’s get back to work.” And he might well point me toward a major Consti- tutional crisis that could be coming right down Main Street.
The London bombings have sent a new wave of apprehension through our security forces here at home, and a major concern is whether our first responders, no matter how well trained, will be crippled by the chaos of catastrophe. A question is whether our police forces, in particular, will be overwhelmed by chemical, biolo- gical or bombing attacks and by the inevitable lawless mobs and criminal gangs that emerge from disaster.
Anonymous senior officers are leaking a so-called “classified” story (no doubt with the Pentagon’s approval) that the military anti- cipates several simultaneous terrorist strikes around the country and is making plans to train quick reaction troops to back up our first responders.
These plans are regarded as a historic move by the Pentagon, which has tried to avoid involvement in domestic operations. The worry is whether regular army troops, to restore order, would, in the absence of regular police, have to arrest those who are break- ing the law. But our federal military forces are constrained from acting as a domestic police force, in most circumstances, by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. It is not a secret that President Bush has ordered government lawyers to determine whether the Posse Comitatus Act should be changed (with Congressional approval of course) to allow the military to assume police powers during a national terrorism crisis.
Civil liberties groups are said to be uncomfortable with that possi- bility – some even fearing that changing the Posse Comitatus Act would, in effect, make Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the head of a national police force with little or no oversight.
Others argue that the Act could be legally bypassed by the Presi- dent’s Constitutional authority as commander in chief of our arm- ed forces. Because the Act exempts powers authorized by the Constitution, Bush could, the lawyers argue, arbitrarily bestow police powers on the military.
What we see from all this is the possibility of another profound Constitutional debate and another challenge to our traditional civil liberties. As Prime Minister Tony Blair said the other day, “Let no one be in any doubt – the rules of the game are changing.”
This is Bill Seamans.
Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.