Following the Civil War, the former Confederate States were subjected to rule by U.S. Army troops during the10 long years of what history calls the Reconstruction. Fearful of a repetition of this kind of military occupation, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act on June 18, 1878, severely limiting the powers of the federal government in the use of federal military personnel to enforce laws in the states.
After the terrorist attack on 9/11, Congress was urged by then-President Bush to revise the federal laws so that U.S. armed forces could be utilized to restore public order and enforce laws in the aftermath of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other similar incidents. Congress obliged in 2007 by passage of the John Warner National Defense Act and expanded these powers in 2012 by passage of the National Defense Authorization Act.
These acts have more than their share of critics who worry about the effect their implementation may have upon our constitutional rights. But perhaps even more worrisome than the deployment of U.S. troops during times of trouble may be the emergence of para-military forces attached to government agencies controlled by the executive branch of government, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
On June 2, 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama delivered a speech in Boulder, Colorado in which he deviated from his pre-released script and discarding his ubiquitous teleprompter, told his audience:
"We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as well-funded."
If you are a student of history, you are aware that other autocratic countries have, or had, national security forces. Hitler had his "SS," Stalin, his "NKVD," East Germany, its "STASI," and let's not forget the Iranian "Revolutionary Guard."
While I am not suggesting that the United States is in imminent peril of becoming a dictatorship (thank God we still have our Constitution), it would be wise to keep a wary eye on Washington as it responds to the threat of domestic terrorism; for history has shown us that a nation's freedoms are most vulnerable when its citizenry is fearful of violence and resultant anarchy. When a people fear for their safety, they often will turn to a strong leader who promises security. To this end, it may be wise to remember Benjamin Franklin's admonition:
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Well, let's take a glance at the present landscape in the country and see if we spot any troubling signs.
Earlier this year, agents from the Department of Homeland Security, presenting themselves as national "police," were deployed across the country to "monitor" Tea Party activists who were peacefully protesting the Obama administration regarding the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS.
From California to Florida, armed DHS functionaries, according to protesters in attendance, were turned out to intimidate and spy on them. These DHS agents arrived in large Homeland Security vehicles that were emblazoned with large letters reading "police" and were dressed in "police" uniforms.
Exactly who are these DHS "police?" They are part of the Federal Protection Service (FPS), a division of the National Protection and Programs Directorate of the DHS. Its published "mission" is to render federal properties safe and secure for federal employees and officials.
At its inception, the FPS utilized a fixed guard post concept to carry out its duties. Under the Obama administration, however, the FPS has shifted its emphasis to a mobile police patrol and response approach thereby going on the offensive, performing duties which one would expect from a true police force, including actively preventing or deterring disturbances and investing alleged felonies and misdemeanors.
Civil libertarians worry that this expansion of authority by the DHS may infringe upon the First Amendment rights of the people. Robyn Green with the ACLU Washington Legislature Office, after learning of these DHS activities, warned in 2011 that, "This type of government monitoring and tracking of lawful demonstrators and political speech can have a chilling effect on Americans' exercise of their rights to free speech and assembly."
The Congress has also awakened to this expansion of the DHS prerogative, investigating reports that DHS has stockpiled over a billion bullets, (enough to fight an Iraq-like war for 24 years!) ordered some 7,000 NATO assault rifles and purchased several thousand Mine Resistant Armed Protection (MRAP) vehicles. Excuse me for saying so, but if this degree of weaponry is what is needed to protect federal property, we must be in a state of anarchy without knowing it!
Why does the DHS need these high-powered armaments? What are they anticipating or planning and why are so few in the media and Congress seeking answers? Could it have anything to do with Mr. Obama's call for that national security force back in 2008?
During the deliberations leading to the drafting of our Constitution in 1787, Benjamin Franklin, while leaving Independence Hall in Philadelphia was approached by a Mrs. Powell, who asked, "Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" With no hesitation, Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."
I pray to God that we can keep it!
Guest columnist Bonenberger is an attorney who lives and practices in Wheeling.