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SOCOM JA to play critical role in homeland security

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

As the United States faces a future of terrorist threats on its soil and the government works to preempt attacks, the legal issues of military operations on the domestic front are expected by many experts to be a hotbed of contention.

Retiring Special Operations Command Judge Advocate Col. Howard Donaldson, leaving the Air Force June 1 after 30 years of service, will be a key player at the center of the debate as director of domestic operations law for the new U.S. Northern Command at Peterson AFB, Colo.

Based at SOCOM at MacDill the last three years and one-time Wing JAG, Donaldson will be the chief legal advisor when it comes to interpretations of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which excludes the military from participation in police type activities such as search and seizures on American soil.

At issue is the direct use of the specialized ability and manpower of the military to assist in preventing terrorism at home. The 1878 act was passed to limit military policing following the Civil War, where Union troops remained in the south well after the end of the war in 1865.

But freedom from federal intervention may come at a price. The military has unique capabilities and equipment and defining just what it can and cannot do to help at home will be one of Donaldson's jobs. As he sees it now, he believes the current laws provide a balance of what is needed to protect the country from terrorism and preserve civil liberties.

"My initial opinion is it (current law) gives us the authority we need and at the same time restricts us where we should be restricted," said Donaldson.

The issue over military assistance of police made headlines recently when police officials worked with the military to use an unmanned spy drone to help locate the Beltway Sniper. It was argued by some that the use of the drone was a violation, but others argued it was indirect support and was thus not a military operation.

"That's a perfect example of the kinds of issues we'll be dealing with," said Donaldson.

He said there are many challenges facing the country and working within the law to combat lawlessness will be the objective.

Currently it is the National Guard, commanded by state governors, which provides assistance to police when needed. But there is no unified command of these forces so at this point Guard assistance in the battle against terrorism would be a case of 52 different entities trying to coordinate efforts, said Donaldson. Bringing the Guard under one command could make it more effective in battling terror but that could run afoul with the Posse Comitatus Act.

So it will be a balancing act, said Donaldson, who added he is confident solutions will be found. Donaldson, who began service in the U.S. Army, served as staff judge advocate at MacDill from January 1991 to August 1993. He became judge advocate for Special Operations in November of 2001. He had 30 years in the service in April 1999 and retired, only to be recalled to active duty until his second retirement, scheduled for June 1.

 

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