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Cohen Sketches Future of Homeland Defense

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2000 – What happens if a terrorist sarin gas attack occurs in New York or Washington or Los Angeles -- or all three at once? Who is to respond?

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen asked these questions Oct. 2 in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. The answer, he said, is the Department of Defense.

Cohen said when he first proposed formation of a "commander-in-chief for homeland defense" the idea was controversial. "Immediately there were questions being raised as to whether or not this would intrude upon the constitutional prohibitions of getting our military involved in domestic affairs," he said.

But a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction would quickly overwhelm any local response. "Is there any other institution in this country that has the organizational capability, the logistics capability, other than the Department of Defense, to respond, to provide transportation, to move medicines and personnel, provide the hospital beds, etc.?"

Cohen said the United States must deal with the question now. "I believe that we, as a democratic society, have yet to come to grips with the tension that exists between our constitutional protection of the right to privacy with the demand that we made on the need to protect us," he said.

He cited what DoD is doing now to support first responders. He said the department is working with officials in 120 U.S. cities to ask and answer questions now so they won't have to be answered in an actual attack. The issues DoD and cities are addressing include how to protect the fire fighters, police and other first responders on the scene, and how first responders would identify the agent used.

He said DoD trainers are going over all contingencies with city officials. One he noted was what cities should do with contaminated casualties.

"Right now we're preparing the local agencies from the fire, the police, the health care facilities, the National Guard under the governor's jurisdiction," he said. "But if you start to have multiple attacks with mass casualties, then I think that it will be very logical and probably imperative that you have to turn to the Defense Department to provide assistance.

"We need to work this out in advance so we don't have the kind of constitutional challenge or confusion taking place in those times of crises."

Cohen said the American people also should debate what changes, if any, need to be made regarding the right of privacy. He said the best way to defend against terrorists is to make sure their attacks do not succeed. Greater intelligence capabilities are needed to stop terrorists, he suggested.

The United States and its friends and allies already share information on terrorists because terrorism knows no national boundaries, he noted. But, he said, sources are needed in the United States -- Timothy McVeigh was not a foreign terrorist.

"Greater information means a greater invasion of privacy," Cohen said. "Do you start to profile? Do we say certain types of people are more likely than others to be carrying these noxious weapons?

"We have to be very careful how we go about gathering greater information and greater intelligence, because that comes right up against the wall of constitutional protections against your right of privacy."

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