Signed by President Bush on Oct. 17, the law (PL 109-364) has a provocative provision called â€œUse of the Armed Forces in Major Public Emergencies.â€
The thrust of it seems to be about giving the federal government a far stronger hand in coordinating responses to Katrina-like disasters.
But on closer inspection, its language also alters the two-centuries-old Insurrection Act, which Congress passed in 1807 to limit the presidentâ€™s power to deploy troops within the United States.
That law has long allowed the president to mobilize troops only â€œto suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.â€
But the amended law takes the cuffs off.
Specifically, the new language adds â€œnatural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incidentâ€ to the list of conditions permitting the President to take over local authority â€” particularly â€œif domestic violence has occurred to such an extent that the constituted authorities of the State or possession are incapable of maintaining public order.â€
Since the administration broadened what constitutes â€œconspiracyâ€ in its definition of enemy combatants â€” anyone who â€œhas purposely and materially supported hostilities against the United States,â€ in the language of the Military Commissions Act (PL 109-366) â€” critics say itâ€™s a formula for executive branch mischief.
Yet despite such a radical turn, the new law garnered little dissent, or even attention, on the Hill.