DoD Creates Military Team to Deal With Ebola in U.S.; 'We Actually Do Have the Legal Authorities'

By Susan Jones | October 20, 2014 | 8:18am EDT

FILE - This July 3, 2014 file photo shows Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaking at the Pentagon.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

( - "We actually do have the legal authorities to do this," a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday, one day after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the U.S. military to form an "expeditionary Ebola support team."

"This isn't going to violate Posse Comitatus," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 says the Army (and later, the Air Force) may not be used to "execute the laws" of the United States.

"This is nothing more than potential support, and I stress 'potential support,' to civilian medical authorities -- if and only if they ask for that," Kirby said. "But there's no violation of posse comitatus. The Northern Command commander has the authorities that he needs to get this team ready to go."

The Defense Department announced on Sunday that, "In response to a request by the Department of Health and Human Services -- and as an added prudent measure to ensure the nation is ready to respond quickly, effectively, and safely in the event of additional Ebola cases in the United States -- Secretary Hagel today ordered his Northern Command Commander, Gen. Chuck Jacoby, to prepare and train a 30-person expeditionary medical support team that could, if required, provide short-notice assistance to civilian medical professionals in the United States."

The nature of that assistance is not explained, but the concern about additional Ebola cases suggests the military would be used to enforce potential quarantines.

The military team will consist of 20 critical care nurses, 5 doctors trained in infectious disease, and 5 trainers in infectious disease protocols.

The team will go to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for up to seven days of "specialized training in infection control and personal protective equipment," the Pentagon said. After the training, the team will remain in a "prepare to deploy" status for 30 days -- "available to be sent to other CONUS (continental U.S.) locations as required."

The Defense Department said this team will not be sent to West Africa or anywhere else overseas: They "will be called upon domestically only if deemed prudent by our public health officials," the news release said.

"Identifying, training, and preparing forces in advance of potential requests ensures that we can respond quickly and is analogous to how we prepare DoD personnel in advance of other potential civil support missions, such as hurricane relief and wildland firefighting."

The news release said Defense Secretary Hagel "is committed to ensuring DoD is prepared to provide appropriate capabilities, as required, to support our government's response to this deadly disease."

The Posse Comitatus Act reads as follows: "Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both. (Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1385)

Some 540 U.S. troops are now working mainly in Liberia to build health clinics and training facilities to help that region deal with its Ebola epidemic.

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