10/02/2001 - Updated 03:39 PM ET

Military now a presence on home front

By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON Fighter jets scream across the skies over the nation's capital and its largest city. Aircraft carriers and destroyers with surface-to-air missiles sit off both coasts. Soldiers in Humvees with M-16 rifles stand guard on street corners. Not even during the fiercest fighting of World War II, nor during the tensest moments of the Cold War, has the U.S. military mounted a defense of its home turf as massive as the one mobilized in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.

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"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 selected one.

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 January.

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 spokesman.

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 York-Washington corridor.

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 attack.

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 Pentagon.

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 Washington.

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."