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Pentagon claims domestic authority “to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances”

Is it just me, or is this profoundly disturbing?

No, it’s not just me.

From the Long Island Press, May 14:

The manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects offered the nation a window into the stunning military-style capabilities of our local law enforcement agencies. For the past 30 years, police departments throughout the United States have benefitted from the government’s largesse in the form of military weaponry and training, incentives offered in the ongoing “War on Drugs.” For the average citizen watching events such as the intense pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers on television, it would be difficult to discern between fully outfitted police SWAT teams and the military.

The lines blurred even further Monday as a new dynamic was introduced to the militarization of domestic law enforcement. By making a few subtle changes to a regulation in the U.S. Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” the military has quietly granted itself the ability to police the streets without obtaining prior local or state consent, upending a precedent that has been in place for more than two centuries.

The most objectionable aspect of the regulatory change is the inclusion of vague language that permits military intervention in the event of “civil disturbances.” According to the rule:

Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances.

Bruce Afran, a civil liberties attorney and constitutional law professor at Rutgers University, calls the rule, “a wanton power grab by the military,” and says, “It’s quite shocking actually because it violates the long-standing presumption that the military is under civilian control.”

. . . [T]he relatively few instances that federal troops have been deployed for domestic support have produced a wide range of results. Situations have included responding to natural disasters and protecting demonstrators during the Civil Rights era to, disastrously, the Kent State student massacre and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. Michael German, senior policy counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), noted in a 2009 Daily Kos article that, “there is no doubt that the military is very good at many things. But recent history shows that restraint in their new-found domestic role is not one of them.”

. . . [A] DoD official even referred to the Boston bombing suspects manhunt saying, “Like most major police departments, if you didn’t know they were a police department you would think they were the military.” According to this official there has purposely been a “large transfer of technology so that the military doesn’t have to get involved.” Moreover, he says the military has learned from past events, such as the siege at Waco, where ATF officials mishandled military equipment. “We have transferred the technology so we don’t have to loan it,” he states.

But if the transfer of military training and technology has been so thorough, it boggles the imagination as to what kind of disturbance would be so overwhelming that it would require the suspension of centuries-old law and precedent to grant military complete authority on the ground. The DoD official admits not being able to “envision that happening,” adding, “but I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter.”

. . . As we witnessed during the Boston bombing manhunt, it’s already difficult to discern between military and police. In the future it might be impossible, because there may be no difference.

More: “U.S. Military ‘Power Grab’ Goes into Effect

ADDENDUM (posted one hour after the above):

Be sure to pay attention to the part of the article, which I didn’t quote above, where a U.S. defense official who “declined to be named” said, “The authorization has been around over 100 years; it’s not a new authority. It’s been there but it hasn’t been exercised. This is a carryover of domestic policy.” And indeed, you can poke around and find the same wording going back quite some time in the same regulation. But the current situation represents a rewording with “subtle changes,” as the Long Island Press journalist notes. The effort to make these changes goes back several months, at least to February; see the note about it published last month by the FAS Project on Government Secrecy.

And, you know, one might be inclined to regard it as an overreaction to think/feel that this is really disturbing, and one might be inclined to accept the soothing reassurance of that unnamed defense official, IF it weren’t for the fact that last year’s flap over the revised NDAA and its authorization of the federal government to imprison anybody, including American citizens, indefinitely without trial hadn’t emerged as really and truly a crisis, with a lawsuit over it being brought against the government by a group of journalists led by Chris Hedges, whose fairly legendary reputation precedes him.

We seem to be smack-dab in the middle of an “all bets are off” stage of American history, where fears and concerns formerly framed as the province of fringe-dwellers and conspiracy-nuts are repeatedly shown to be really and truly justified, as in — to name just one prominent example — the flat-out demolition of the U.S. economy while all of the talking heads representing the mainstream financial and economic ideology continued to talk soothing nonsense.