A proposal to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to counter drug trafficking has triggered a bureaucratic standoff between the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security over the military’s role in domestic affairs, according to officials in both departments.

The debate has engaged a pair of powerful personalities, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in what their subordinates describe as a turf fight over who should direct the use of troops to assist in the fight against Mexican cartels and who should pay for them.

At issue is a proposal to send 1,500 additional troops to the border to analyze intelligence and to provide air support and technical assistance to border agencies. The governors of Texas, Arizona, California and New Mexico made the request in January, drawing support from Napolitano but prompting objections from the Pentagon, where officials argue that it could lead to a permanent, expanded mission for the military.

President Barack Obama has signaled that he is open to the idea, asking Congress for $250 million to deploy the National Guard while also saying he was “not interested in militarizing the border.” The issue, which has been stalled before a National Security Council policy committee, will be decided by the president.

Neither Napolitano nor Gates has made the disagreement personal, although some of their aides have privately expressed exasperation at what one called an interagency “food fight.”

“It should not be that we always rely on the Department of Defense to fulfill some need,” said Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., head of the U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for defending the continental United States. Border law enforcement agencies should have adequate funds to do their job, he said. If the Guard is tapped, it should be for capabilities “that do not exist elsewhere in government,” Renuart said. “When we send the National Guard, they go with specific missions, with specific purposes. And we put some duration on that so there is an end state.”

Homeland security officials and governors counter that there is a legitimate need for troops to back up border agencies against the most serious threat to the Southwest and that a deployment would not represent a new military mission. Under a 1989 law, the National Guard already assigns 577 troops to help states with anti-drug programs that “can easily expand,” the four governors wrote Congress in April.

Napolitano, who as governor of Arizona prompted President George W. Bush to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in 2006, has supported the governors.

Brian de Vallance, senior counselor to Napolitano, said she “feels we have an obligation to do whatever we can do to disrupt those forces that are destroying lives in over 200 American cities. … It comes down to whether folks want to be as aggressive as we can be against the cartels and take every advantage of this historic opportunity” of cooperation between Mexico and the United States.

The debate goes to the heart of the military’s role, which has expanded since the 2001 terrorist attacks, with an increasing commitment of troops and resources to homeland defense, particularly to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear attack or other domestic catastrophe. The deployment of new troops to the border would represent a mission the military has not traditionally embraced.

“What we’re seeing is here is a move toward reframing where defense begins and ends,” said Bert B. Tussing, director of homeland defense and security issues at the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership. “Traditionally the military looks outward, but looking outward has begun a lot closer to home, and it may involve looking just across the border.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) requested 1,000 Guard troops in January that he later said could form 24 border reconnaissance platoons, support Texas Ranger and parks and wildlife tracking teams, and back up air and marine operations. Perry, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) subsequently asked Congress to add personnel to the National Guard’s Counter-Drug Program in their states. Currently, troops provide translators, reconnaissance and administrative support, relaying aircraft surveillance images, for example.

Border states bear “unique and/or disproportionate” costs of dealing with illegal immigration, drugs and violence, Brewer wrote. “It is abundantly clear that additional resources are needed — and needed now,” the governors wrote in a separate letter.

The fight is largely over money. For the past two years, Pentagon budget officials have tried to slash funding for state drug-fighting operations, citing the financial strain of waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And military officials say governors could pay for their own guard units.

But governors contend that securing the border is a federal responsibility and that Washington should cover the cost.

Paul McHale, Gates’s assistant secretary for homeland defense until early this year, said the broader worry is strategic. “The real concern is, if it works once, and it works a second time … at some point a temporary mission becomes permanent,” he said. “Do it four or five times over a decade, and the political and military repercussions are likely negative.”

A senior White House national security official said the president is comfortable with the disagreement and “wants to see the kind of creative tension and full-out debate that major policy decisions engender.”

The official added, “It’s the president’s view that … frankly, that kind of debate among two Cabinet officers like Secretary Gates and Secretary Napolitano, both of whom he holds in high regard, will inevitably lead to a better policy.”

The official noted that the administration has already taken some steps, sending 450 DHS and Justice Department agents to the border in March to fight cash and weapons smuggling. And, he pointed out, crime in U.S. border communities and border arrests have fallen.

For now, administration officials are working through differences. In response to the Pentagon concerns that the troops could become permanent, DHS officials are searching for benchmarks that would end a deployment, such as a drop in cartel violence or improved Mexican enforcement.

When the Bush administration sent Guard units to the border, they went as a stopgap measure, backing up the U.S. Border Patrol for two years while it added 6,000 agents. The troops rotated through non-law enforcement duties.

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