"We are now into
something we have never experienced before," says Robert
Dallek, a presidential and diplomatic historian at Boston
University. During World War II, homeland defense was mainly
the preserve of civilian air wardens and coastal watch
batteries. The Navy and Air Force patrolled coastal waters,
but "they didn't fly over American cities as an umbrella of
defense" as they are now, Dallek says.
Like every other military operation, the
new homeland defense mission has a name: Noble Eagle. And like
other wartime operations, details of the mission are secret.
All the Pentagon will say is that it is prepared to keep Noble
Eagle on high alert as long as necessary.
The name for the operation initially
referred to air patrols launched by the Air Force after the
attacks but was expanded to cover all defensive measures. A
computer produced several names that hadn't been used before,
and the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff
The Pentagon refuses to say how many
aircraft, ships and troops are defending U.S. territory or
where they are — even after TV cameras showed the carrier USS
George Washington off New York.
Only the Coast Guard, which in peacetime
falls under the authority of the Transportation Department,
has released detailed information about the number and
location of its ships and personnel involved in port security
across the nation.
The enormous scope of the effort became
clear on Friday when President Bush authorized the call-up of
50,000 National Guard and Reserve troops to aid in homeland
defense. About 35,500 reservists are expected to be called as
early as this week. They will provide port security, medical
services and engineering support. They also will beef up
ground maintenance and air traffic control at Air Force bases
so jets can respond more quickly to threats of attack.
The Coast Guard, which has been
authorized to board any ship — foreign or domestic — within 3
miles of U.S. soil, called up 700 reservists this weekend.
They join 1,200 troops activated by Transportation Secretary
Norman Mineta immediately after the attack.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on
ABC's This Week Sunday that a just-completed review of
military priorities "very much focused on homeland defense"
and the threat of terrorist attacks. He said that he has
raised concerns about assaults on U.S. Territory since
Indeed, in the past year, a flurry of
commissions has pushed or more emphasis on protecting the 50
states from terrorist attacks. One report identified 46
different agencies with responsibility for homeland defense
and urged they be coordinated by the vice president. It also
said the National Guard should make defending U.S. Soil its
prime mission. Army National Guard troops provided security on
the streets of Washington and New York last week.
State militias and their successor, the
National Guard, have responded to natural disasters and civil
unrest since 1636. But no one was prepared for what unfolded
last week. "Before Tuesday, we didn't think of airliners as
weapons," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon
Before Tuesday, the North American
Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which once stood on 24-hour
alert for a Soviet nuclear attack, had busied itself tracking
drug smugglers and issuing Santa Claus alerts at Christmas
time. Now, it is charged with ensuring that any future suicide
planes are shot out of the sky.
In the days after the attack, when all
U.S. airports were shut down, NORAD flew combat air patrols
over some 30 cities. That was far more than during the 1962
Cuban missile crisis, which brought the United States and
Soviet Union to the brink of war. Then, only the Southeast was
patrolled by fighter jets. After commercial air travel resumed
this weekend, NORAD reduced patrols by fighter jets to the New
But fighter pilots remain on alert at 26
Air Force bases across the country — all with the ability to
be airborne within 15 minutes to fend off a possible
Until Tuesday, the fighter base on alert
closest to the Pentagon was 130 miles away at Langley Air
Force Base, Va. That was too distant for fighter jets to
intercept the hijacked jetliner before it crashed into the
Andrews Air Force Base, home to Air Force
One, is only 15 miles away from the Pentagon, but it had no
fighters assigned to it. Defense officials won't say whether
that has changed.
Vice President Cheney said on NBC's
Meet the Press that President Bush gave an order
Tuesday to intercept and shoot down any commercial airliners
headed for Washington that would not divert course. It is not
clear whether fighter pilots would need the same clearance in
the case of any future hijackings.
Quigley noted the problem of launching
air-to-air missiles at a jetliner filled with innocent
American civilians: The choice would be excruciatingly
difficult over congested areas, where the debris might kill
more innocent people.
To make sure the president won't have to
face such a decision, the military will maintain a presence
unfamiliar to Americans. Israelis and Europeans are used to
seeing machine gun-toting soldiers guarding their government
buildings and airports and stopping them at checkpoints. Soon,
Americans may become accustomed to the sight also.
That prospect has some civil libertarians
worried. After the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, when
federal troops ran the South under martial law, Congress
barred the use of military forces for law enforcement. Since
then, "We've been squeamish as a nation about having the
military play a strong domestic-security role," says Gordon
Adams, a defense expert at George Washington University in
After Tuesday, there's been "a real
rethinking of the role of the military," Adams says. "There's
been a shift in the tectonic plates of national defense."