The White House and Pentagon unveiled plans Friday to begin vaccinating health-care workers and as many as 500,000 military personnel against the release of smallpox on the battlefield, but it also has a step-by-step guide for military commanders in the event of a domestic biological weapons attack.
Because the disease was finally eradicated in 1979, a single case of smallpox would be considered to be the result of a germ warfare attack. There are only two known stocks of the disease -- in the United States and Russia -- but the U.S. government fears that some of the stock may have been stolen and sold on the black market.
Smallpox would kill one-third of its victims if they are not treated in time, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The newly organized U.S. Northern Command, currently headed by Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, would be in charge of coordinating military support for a domestic biological attack.
While the military is generally prohibited from performing law enforcement duties on American soil under a law known as the Posse Comitatus Act, the military can be pressed into service by civilian authorities in the event of an emergency.
Military personnel would generally not be carrying weapons to enforce the quarantine in the event of a biological weapons attack. However, they could be deployed to the affected area with weapons, and the weapons would be secured in a warehouse in case they are needed. Weapons would only be carried with the express order by the secretary of defense and the attorney general, according to a Defense Department smallpox response plan released in September.
Local military commanders may use troops at local civilian authority request without approval from the Pentagon to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate great property damage, according to the plan.
An outbreak of smallpox in the United States could seriously infringe on military activities, as flights and troop movement would be cut to a minimum to slow the potential spread of the disease. Those within one hour of ground transportation -- or one leg of a commercial flight originating at an airport within an hour ground transport of an infected area -- would be considered the most likely to have been exposed.
Military personnel might also be pressed into mortuary-related duties in the event of mass casualties