Commentary

Halsey Frank: WaPo and its generals need to get a grip

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In the Washington Post on December 18, three retired generals wrote that they are concerned about the military staging a coup in connection with the 2024 presidential election. Paul Eaton, Antonio Taguba and Steven Anderson’s reasons are that one-in-ten of the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6 were current or former military members, 124 retired officers signed a letter “echoing” Donald Trump’s false attacks on the legitimacy of “our elections,” and the commanding general of the Oklahoma National Guard refused to follow President Biden’s order that Guard members be vaccinated, claiming that the president is not in charge of the Guard unless it is federally mobilized.

The generals fear a breakdown of the chain of command in which “rogue units” take up arms in support of who they believe to be their “rightful commander,” leading to civil war. They find confirmation of their fears in their observation that the military was not prepared for January 6, and in the fact that the leaders of the January 6 insurrection have not been held accountable.

The generals’ prescription includes an order that the military undertake a “civics review” of the Constitution, electoral integrity, law of war, illegal orders, and unity of command. The military should conduct intelligence operations on its members to identify, isolate, and remove “potential mutineers,” and to guard against “propagandists” who spread misinformation and subvert the chain of command. It should conduct “war games” in preparation for insurrection.

Ten percent of the approximately 800 people who stormed the Capitol amounts to about 80 people. According to the House Appropriations Committee, the United States armed forces contain over 1.3 million active service members. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are over 19 million veterans in the United States today. Together, the 80 who participated in the siege and the 124 who signed the letter amount to 0.001% of current and former military members.

The idea that this cohort represents a threat to the military’s chain of command in which rogue units will start a civil war in connection with the 2024 presidential election is farfetched. The conflict between law enforcement and reformers seems to be more widespread, violent and is also worrisome.

The generals’ concern about the Oklahoma National Guard’s commander challenging the president’s mandate seems premature and overblown.

The National Guard is a reserve component of the organized militia of the United States along with the active military. Obedience to authority is more important in the military than in other segments of society. But it seems that every source of authority is being questioned these days, and it is not clear why the military should be exempt from that trend.

On December 28, a federal district court denied Oklahoma’s request for a preliminary injunction and held that the mandate was a valid and enforceable exercise of the federal government’s Article I constitutional authority to organize, discipline and govern the militia. On January 3, a federal district court in Texas granted some Navy SEALS’ request for a preliminary injunction on the grounds that the mandate violates their constitutional and statutory rights to freely exercise religion. Courts are resolving the issue. That’s the American way.

As for the concern that leaders are not being held accountable, the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia are methodically working through mountains of evidence and prosecuting members of the mob that stormed the Capitol. Federal judges have sentenced convicted defendants to significant periods of incarceration. Those cases are getting national media attention. The House Select Committee is investigating, issuing subpoenas, and enforcing them. That’s the way our legal system works.

The generals’ idea that the military should spy on its own members is concerning. Military members’ First Amendment rights may be attenuated by the need for discipline, but they are not forfeited altogether. Government suppression is rarely the most effective way to deal with problematic thinking. Education is better. And the military is not the only component of our society that could benefit from balanced civic education. We all could.

Conducting war games against insurrection is an overreaction.

Depending on who’s counting, between 10 and 28 different local and federal law enforcement agencies operate within the District of Columbia. Among the most well-staffed and equipped are the Metropolitan Police Department and the Capitol Police. The mayor of Washington, D.C. is in charge of the Metropolitan Police. Its ranks have been shrinking, but at the time, it had about 3,300 sworn officers.

The Capitol Police has responsibility for the safety of the Capitol building and grounds, and the protection of members of Congress. It has over 2,000 sworn officers. It is overseen by Congress and a board that includes the architect of the Capitol, and the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms. In consultation with the appropriate congressional leaders, they have the authority to seek assistance from executive departments and agencies.

The Capitol was besieged by approximately 800 people. The siege occurred after a summer of unrest in which law enforcement was continually on high alert, assessing and responding to threats, including in D.C. The Capitol Police had intelligence that pro-Trump activists intended to bring weapons to the demonstration and storm the Capitol.

Nevertheless, it failed to adequately mobilize, reinforce, and equip its own officers, and failed to establish an adequate perimeter, perhaps for political reasons. This is not to excuse the president for inciting the mob, or the mob for invading the Capitol; just to argue that if law enforcement had taken adequate precautions, it is unlikely the mob would have gotten very far.

Our country is a federated, democratic republic. Its fundamental premise is to govern locally before nationally. That premise applies to responses to emergencies. A more reasonable response to the siege and fears about future unrest would be to focus on why that inside-out model didn’t perform as intended before scrapping it for a heavy-handed, top-down alternative more typical of less democratic regimes.

About Halsey Frank

Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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