WASHINGTON—The deployment of National Guard troops to the border with Mexico won't affect the military's ability to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan or to respond to emergencies at home, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday.
Rumsfeld said the 6,000 Guard troops to be deployed represent fewer than 2 percent of the National Guard's 445,000 part-time soldiers and airmen. Deployments will take place during their annual two weeks of active-duty training.
"As such, this will not only not adversely affect America's ability to conduct the war on terror or respond to other domestic emergencies," Rumsfeld said, testifying to the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. "It will actually provide useful, real-life training for the members of the National Guard."
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the National Guard's top officer, said troops were "superbly ready" to take on the border mission until the Department of Homeland Security could handle it on its own.
Blum said the National Guard had handled a number of similar missions in the last five years, including airport security and border cargo inspection. He said the National Guard was a "very robust force" that could handle a number of missions at once.
"We have sufficient soldiers to do the overseas war fight, prepare for the upcoming hurricane season, (and) still have the forces that we need to respond for terrorism in this country or a (weapons of mass destruction) event," Blum said.
President Bush announced Monday that he was sending up to 6,000 National Guard troops to help the Border Patrol police the 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico. The move, part of a package of immigration revisions, is meant to help stem the flow of illegal immigrants while the Border Patrol trains another 6,000 agents by the end of 2008. The Border Patrol currently has 12,000 agents.
Rumsfeld told the subcommittee that National Guard members won't be involved directly in law enforcement. They'll assist with mobile communications, transportation, logistics training and construction, he said.
In his address Monday night, Bush said the National Guard would operate surveillance systems, analyze intelligence, install fences and vehicle barriers, and build more patrol roads in rural areas. At the same time, the Border Patrol will construct high-tech fences and barriers and employ more motion sensors, infrared cameras and surveillance drones to prevent illegal crossings, the president said.
While the National Guard forces are supposed to be drawn primarily from the four border states—California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—the federal government is intended to pick up the tab. Pentagon Comptroller Tina Jonas said the White House Office of Management and Budget would forward details on the cost to Congress soon.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the Senate's longest-serving member, asked whether it would make better sense to have the Department of Homeland Security hire private contractors for the task. Byrd suggested that this would allow the National Guard to preserve its ability to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies.
Rumsfeld said the deployment wouldn't "in any way degrade or damage" the Guard's capabilities. He said the deployment would even benefit the Guard from a training standpoint.
A woman shouted "liar!" as Rumsfeld wrapped up his opening statement. She wore a pink shirt that said "Stop the Next War" and had a number representing U.S. war dead in Iraq scrawled on a piece of tape across her chest. Security guards escorted her out.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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