WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) -- Bowing to Senate pressure, the Pentagon will shortly allow nearly one third of the 1,600 National Guard soldiers manning border crossings to carry weapons, Pentagon officials told United Press International Tuesday.
The decision reverses a White House decree not to allow any soldiers at U.S. border crossings to carry side arms -- an attempt to avoid sending an undiplomatic message to Mexico and Canada, prevent accidental shootings and circumvent the possibility that the Defense Department's mission on U.S. soil will be expanded, these sources said.
The policy change is expected to be made final this week. The 4-500 soldiers allowed to carry arms likely will be only those at remote border crossings manned by just one or two law enforcement officers, according to a Pentagon official.
National Guard soldiers at airports, those that provided security at the Olympics in Salt Lake City and those at the borders working counter-drug missions all carry weapons already.
Neither the Treasury Department -- which runs U.S. Customs -- nor the Immigration and Naturalization Service could recruit sufficient numbers of reliable people quickly enough to boost border security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, so the Defense Department was tapped to provide extra manpower for a six-month period. That request was made in October.
Protracted legal haggling finally resulted in an agreement in February that placed 734 soldiers with the Customs Service and 824 with the INS for 179 days beginning March 8. In exchange, the two agencies will pay the Defense Department $75 million.
Part of the arrangement was that the soldiers would not carry weapons -- a decision made by Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and President Bush because the White House did not want to militarize the borders, a Pentagon official told UPI on Tuesday.
"We really don't want to have military forces on the border. They are borders with friendly countries," the Pentagon official said.
The Pentagon was also concerned that arming soldiers on this special duty raised the possibility of an "unlawful and potentially lethal use of force incident" -- the accidental killing of an innocent traveler by a soldier not trained in law enforcement -- according to a March 11 letter from the Pentagon to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The Defense Department was also worried about mission creep. It is not interested in expanding its mission to encompass border security, the letter stated.
According to the Pentagon, the soldiers are doing low-risk work that does not require side arms. They are searching shipping containers, helping direct traffic and generally supporting the law enforcement officials already at the border crossings.
"They were not likely to be placed in a position where they would use force, either deadly or another kind," the official said.
If the soldiers are threatened, armed INS or Customs agents are supposed to protect them.
"Military personnel are required to work with armed INS and Customs agents as part of a team at all times," wrote Peter Verga, Pentagon director of homeland security, in his March 11 letter to Leahy.
Leahy sent a letter to Bush March 20 signed by more than half the U.S. Senate asking that the troops be allowed to carry weapons, pointing out that soldiers in full battle dress uniforms are potentially high-profile targets.
"It defies logic that active duty personnel working in direct support for armed federal agents will be prohibited from carrying weapons themselves especially as they will be in battle dress uniforms which will presumably make them obvious targets," Leahy wrote.
The Pentagon only grudgingly agreed to this added operational burden. More than 75,000 reserve and National Guardsman have been activated since Sept. 11, many of them for homeland defense missions like guarding airports and flying combat air patrols over U.S. cities. It took six months to work out the memorandum of understanding with Customs and INS.
"We don't like to do these things. We do them as a matter of last resort. That's why we entered into the undertaking with a specific end date and a specific requirement -- because we have better things for these folks to do," the Pentagon official told UPI.
At least part of the reluctance to get involved in border patrols is the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids the U.S. military from enforcing U.S. laws on American soil. The official said posse comitatus was not a strong factor in the decision not to arm the soldiers.
The deployment of the soldiers under federal rather than state authority has raised a related set of questions.
When President Bush announced the deployment of the troops to the borders, all 50 state commanders of the National Guard -- who answer first to their state governors, if the troops are not specifically called up by the president -- protested that the states should be in charge of their mission, allowing the governor to maintain command of the soldiers.
Leahy expressed a similar point of view in a letter to Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December.
They wanted the soldiers to remain under state control to free them from the restriction of posse comitatus, to allow them to continue to train for other missions -- prohibited when they are federally activated -- and to allow the soldiers to remain within their home states to do their work.
"Guard forces serving in their home state can bring unparalleled familiarity with the problems and challenges facing their communities," he wrote.
The White House rejected the entreaties, activating the soldiers under Pentagon authority, an arrangement defense officials say offers better financial protection to reservists.
It also gives Bush and Rumsfeld control over what the soldiers will be doing. If they were under state control, they could be tasked to support other agencies that need manpower at the whim of the governor.