Civil unrest has played a significant role in regime change and nation-building since the inception of civilization itself.
Egypt, historically regarded as the very cradle of civilization, is now being rocked by civil unrest driven by protests against the troubled 30-year reign of the country’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Several people have been killed and thousands arrested, and foreign visitors are being advised to leave the country.
While countrywide unrest in the United States is mostly unheard of, it too has experienced pockets of civil disobedience. Both the Watts riots in 1965 and the L.A. riots in 1992 were sparked by incidents involving clashes between African American motorists and Caucasian patrol officers. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the Kent State shootings in 1970 also touched off riots.
These incidents and other, less notable disturbances, varied in their levels of severity. The Kent State riots, although unfortunately ending in bloodshed, did not erupt into widespread violence. The L.A. riots, however, lasted three days and resulted in the deaths of 53 people and more than a billion dollars in property damage.
Many factors played a role in creating these perfect social storms. The country’s earlier experiences with civil unrest occurred amid the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The L.A. riots were largely driven by the inarguable video evidence of police brutality that was viewed by a community dissatisfied with perceived class differences and racial stratification.
Even so, all of these incidents have a very interesting and conspicuous link ““ the engagement of the National Guard. In fact, National Guard units in 18 states (36 cities) were mobilized following Martin Luther King, Jr’s. assassination.
The casual observer will note that this is the very mission of the Army National Guard and Air National Guard. These state-level, sometimes federally mobilized units provide disaster relief and quell instances of civil unrest. The bigger question, though, is how the decision is made to dispatch the National Guard, how much authority it may exert and whether additional military forces may augment its response.
These questions are the subject of a federal Operations Plan known as Operation Garden Plot.
This plan is specifically designed to respond to acts of major domestic civil disobedience. The authority to activate such a plan is ostensibly conferred by Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that, “Congress shall have power … to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections, and repel Invasions,” and Article II, Section 3, which charges the President to “”¦ take care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
The ability of this federal plan to be applied to state-level disturbances rests in the 10th Amendment, which basically allows federal action in the absence of contravening state law; however, the Supremacy Clause (Article VI of the U.S. Constitution) would ensure its legality even in the face of a 10th Amendment challenge.
So, what does all of this legalese mean? It means that should Operation Garden Plot be activated, it will very likely prevail in any subsequent legal challenges made against it. One may argue, though, that if Operation Garden Plot has been activated, mounting legal challenges may be the least of the citizen’s concerns.
More importantly, its legality fortifies the reality of its very existence. Until recently, many people questioned the plan’s existence, much less its legality. For some it is too troubling to consider the possibility that the Republic could have a plan for martial law.
But, does Operation Garden Plot use the (Army and Air) National Guard to enforce martial law?
As with any question of lawfulness, Operation Garden Plot turns upon definitions. A civil disturbance is loosely defined as any action that disrupts the safety and security of the nation, and would include riots, unlawful disruptions, acts of violence and the like.
The response to such disturbances using federal authority ““ to include federally mobilized forces ““ is guided by Chapter 15, Title 10 of the United States Code. The relevant part of this states that the President “”¦ may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress
So, the short answer is “Yes.”
Although true martial law, or what the population would recognize as such, has never been used by the U.S. government, it is not because the authority does not exist. Operation Garden Plot still exists today and has received some increased attention since the recent publication of declassified documents linking Operation Garden Plot to the “REX 84 Program”: a readiness exercise developed in 1984 to test the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s ability to detain massive numbers of people in the event of a serious threat to the nation’s security.
The legal ramifications of REX 84 amounted to a suspension of the Constitution. Many believe this threat to freedom has been revived by measures written into law following the events of September 11, 2001. These include the Patriot Act, the John Warner Defense Authorization Act, the Military Commissions Act and Presidential Powers Directive 51 (PPD 51).
Between these new laws and the Garden Plot Operations Plan, it appears to outline a situation wherein it would be possible for the President of the United States to declare a national emergency, suspend the rights of the people and even detain them.
The broad strokes are as follows:
- The Patriot Act grants broad powers to the federal government in the area of surveillance. This Act has made it more difficult to justify keeping something private, if the government decides that having knowledge of it is in the national interest, which itself is broadly defined.
- The Defense Authorization Act, for its part, grants the President broad power to station and use federally commanded forces anywhere in the country for any purpose he deems to qualify as an emergency, which summarily undermines the restrictions placed on the President to use federal forces by the Posse Comitatus Act.
- The Military Commissions Act grants wide authority for foreign detention and the use of military tribunals, which arguably means that large “ghost flights” could be used to move people to detention centers where their rights could be suspended.
The language of PPD 51, though, is perhaps the most troubling as it outlines an emergency plan that could be interpreted as eroding the checks and balances built into the system and shifts all power to the Executive Branch.
This is not a conspiracy. These are actual laws, directives and measures that have been enacted by the U.S. government with the stated purpose of safeguarding the interests of the Republic and its citizens. The question is not really whether security is the true purpose of these laws. That is a game for a conspiracy theorist.
The reality is that it is much more likely state-level enforcement agencies with occasional help from the National Guard will be enough to satisfy the security needs of the nation.
A better question is whether these laws are necessary and what potential impact they have on the daily lives of U.S. citizens. No matter the consequences, though, one thing is clear: knowing the power and potential reach of government authority ““ in short, being an informed citizen ““ will make you a more effective participant in the system.