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The New York Times Company January 23, 2005

In Terror Fight, Domestic Roles for U.S. Troops

By Eric Schmitt

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 - Somewhere in the shadows of the White House and the Capitol this week, a small group of super-secret commandos stood ready with state-of-the-art weaponry to swing into action to protect the presidency in ways that have never been fully revealed before.

As part of the extraordinary army of 13,000 troops, police officers and federal agents marshaled to secure the inauguration, these elite forces were deployed under a 1997 authorization that was updated and enhanced after the Sept. 11 attacks, but nonetheless departs from how the military has historically been used on American soil.

These commandos, operating under a secret counterterrorism program code-named Power Geyser, were mentioned publicly for the first time this week on a Web site for a new book, "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operation in the 9/11 World," (Steerforth Press), by William M. Arkin, a former Army intelligence analyst.

The precise number of these Special Operations forces in Washington this week is highly classified, but military officials say the numbers are very small, probably not exceeding a few dozen. The special-missions units belong to the Joint Special Operations Command, a secretive command based at Fort Bragg, N.C., whose elements include the Army unit Delta Force. In the past, the command has also provided support to domestic law enforcement agencies during high-risk events like the Olympics and political party conventions, according to the Web site of GlobalSecurity.org, a research organization in Alexandria, Va.

The role of the armed forces in the United States has been a contentious issue for more than a century. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which restricts military forces from performing domestic law enforcement duties, like policing, was enacted after the Civil War in response to the perceived misuse of federal troops who were charged with policing in the South.

Over the years, the law has been amended to allow the military to lend equipment to federal, state and local authorities; assist federal agencies in drug interdiction; protect national parks; and execute quarantine and certain health laws. About 5,000 federal troops supported civilian agencies at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City three years ago.

Since Sept. 11, however, military and law enforcement agencies have worked much more closely not only to help detect and defeat any possible attack, but also to assure the continuity of the federal government in case of cataclysmic disaster.

The commandos in Washington this week were the same type of Special Operations forces who are hunting top insurgents in Iraq and Osama bin Laden in the mountainous wilds of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But under the top-secret military plan, they are also conducting counterterrorism missions in support of civilian agencies in the United States.

"They bring unique military and technical capabilities that often are centered around potential W.M.D. events," said a senior defense official who has been briefed on the units' operations.

Civil liberties advocates said they had no objections to the program because its scope was limited to supporting the counterterrorism efforts of civilian authorities.

In the online supplement to his book (codenames.org /documents.html), Mr. Arkin says the contingency plan, called JCS Conplan 0300-97, calls for "special-mission units in extra-legal missions to combat terrorism in the United States" based on top-secret orders that are managed by the military's Joint Staff and coordinated with the military's Special Operations Command and Northern Command, which is the lead military headquarters for domestic defense.

Details about the plan are included in a set of briefing slides prepared by the United States Northern Command, outlining the military's preparations for the inauguration.

Three senior Defense Department and Bush administration officials confirmed the existence of the plan and mission, but disputed Mr. Arkin's characterization of the mission as "extra-legal."

One of the officials said the units operated in the United States under "special authority" from either the president or the secretary of defense.

But civilian and uniformed military lawyers said provisions in several federal statutes, including the Fiscal Year 2000 Defense Department Authorization Act, Public Law 106-65, permits the secretary of defense to authorize military forces to support civilian agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the event of a national emergency, especially any involving nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

In 1998, the Pentagon's top policy official, Walter B. Slocombe, acknowledged that the military had covert-action teams.

"We have designated special-mission units that are specifically manned, equipped and trained to deal with a wide variety of transnational threats," Mr. Slocombe told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "These units, assigned to or under the operational control of the U.S. Special Operations Command, are focused primarily on those special operations and supporting functions that combat terrorism and actively counter terrorist use of W.M.D. These units are on alert every day of the year and have worked extensively with their interagency counterparts."

Spokesmen for the Northern Command in Colorado Springs and the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., the parent organization of the Joint Special Operations Command, declined to comment on the plan, the units involved and the mission.

"At any given time, there are a number of classified programs across the government that, for national security reasons, it would be inappropriate to discuss," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. "With respect to your specific questions, it would be irresponsible for me to comment on any classified program, that may or may not exist."

But the Northern Command document that mentions Power Geyser is marked "unclassified." The document states that the purpose of the Department of Defense's contingency planning for the inauguration is to provide "unity of DOD effort to contribute to a safe and secure environment for the 2005 Inauguration."

The Northern Command missions include deterring an attack or mitigating its consequences, and coordinating with the Special Operations Command.

In a telephone interview from his home in Vermont, Mr. Arkin said the military's reaction to the disclosure of the counterterrorism plan and its operating units reflected "the silliness of calling something that's obvious, classified."

"I'm not revealing what they're doing or the methods of their contingency planning," he said. "I don't compromise any sensitive intelligence operations by revealing sources and methods. I don't reveal ongoing operations in specific locales."

Mr. Arkin's book is a glossary of more than 3,000 code names of past and present operations, programs and weapons systems, with brief descriptions of each. Most involved secret activities, and details of many of the programs could not be immediately confirmed.

The book also describes American military operations and assistance programs in scores of countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The murky world of "special access programs" and other secret military and intelligence activities are covered in the book, too. Some code names describe highly classified research programs, like Thirsty Saber, a program that in the 1990's tried to develop a sensor to replace human reasoning. Others describe military installations in foreign countries, like Poker Bluff I, an electronic-eavesdropping collection station in Honduras in the 1980's.

Many involve activities related to the survival of the president and constitutional government. The book, for instance, describes Site R, one of the undisclosed locations used by Vice President Dick Cheney since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Site R is a granite mountain shelter just north of Sabillasville, Md., near the Pennsylvania border. It was built in the early 1950's to withstand a Soviet nuclear attack.

Mr. Arkin said that 28 positions in the government were covered in the presidential succession plan, including 15 cabinet members, the speaker of the House and president pro tem of the Senate. A White House spokesman declined to comment on the continuity of government activities cited in the book.


Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company