Brig. Gen. Douglas O'Dell: ‘This is a corporal's war. It will be fought in back alleys and on rooftops’

Sending In The Marines

The commander of a new American anti-terrorism brigade explains his unit’s role in homeland defense

By Ed Caram

Oct. 29 — As part of America’s new homeland defense strategy, the United States Marines Corps. has established a domestic anti-terrorism crisis force that will function as one rapidly-deployable unit under a single command. The 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (Anti-Terrorism) is designed to be capable of dispatching marine platoons anywhere in the U.S. within six hours of a crisis, according to its commander Brig. Gen. Douglas O’Dell. Larger battalion-size forces could be positioned within 72 hours. Although it would be ready to defend embassies abroad, homeland defense and protecting American citizens from chemical and biological attacks inside the U.S. will be a large part of its mission. The brigade was activated today at Camp LeJeune, N.C.

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O’DELL, A RESERVE officer called back to active duty, had some preparation for his new post last year as head of “Operation Gunslinger” in Kentucky, teaming up with the state’s Emergency Operations Center on a major earthquake and terrorism exercise designed to test the state’s disaster coordination capabilities. O’Dell, 52, a 33-year Marine veteran, spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Ed Caram about his unit’s new mission in a different type of war:

NEWSWEEK: What is the difference between this Brigade and what the Marines are already doing?
Brig. Gen. Douglas O’Dell: The anti-terrorist battalion will give us a new, very robust capability to deploy very rapidly anywhere in the world. The important aspect of that is it allows our troops to flow in or behind the chemical biological response teams, the anti-terrorist security teams, and embassy security as well. Under a single commander it creates new energies that did not previously exist.

What are the unit’s areas of operation?
I estimate one-third of our mission is focused in the United States, in the metropolitan northeast. We can pre-position forces for some events ...[and] we have worldwide capability because our interests and our citizens extend well beyond this and might demand protection in a matter of hours.

So this will have a real urban flavor?
In the last 100 years there has been a large migration from the country to the cities. Our marines will have to operate in these urban environments...They are going to be very well trained. This is going to be a standing capability for the next generation of the marines.

What is the overall size of the unit?
As it stands right now, 4,800 marines. I think that it is likely to [become] larger—a good range for the entire brigade in a year from now [is] 5,000 to 6,000.

Will you be a visible or invisible presence?
Both. By that, I mean we want to be in terms of our vigilance. We want to make them understand that we are there and we are watching them with as much or greater scrutiny than they [are] watching us; but at the same time through a whole host of means, physical as well as electronic, that we are going to be watching them when they are not going to know they are being watched.

Is protecting citizens from chemical and biological attacks inside the U.S a big part of your mission?
The Marines Corps’ Chemical-Biological Incident Response Team (CBIRF) is now part of this Brigade. We can deploy very rapidly to the affected area. Our CBIRF team is on the Capitol Hill area right now. It is based within 25 miles of the Capitol region, and can be in Richmond, New York or Philadelphia in a matter of hours. A good part of our effort is to be tuned in to the intelligence networks at all hours to anticipate threats and be positioned so that we are in the act, versus the react, mode. That is a big piece of the detect and deter.

What role is the CBIRF playing now on Capitol Hill?
They are in biological reconnaissance. That is, they sample and decontaminate areas where the pathogen, anthrax, is. They have been doing that 24/7 for some 10 days now.

Do you envision this as being almost a national SWAT team?

Terrorists are cowards. They don’t go after hardened targets, and when we perceive a threat in one of multiple locations, particularly to locations that we can protect, we are there with increased vigilance and a really bad attitude to reach out and touch those people. They go after soft targets, which is one of the insidious aspects of this kind of 4th generation war.

What are you telling young marines about the nature of this enemy versus the traditional enemy they have been trained to fight up until now?
We have a lot of bright, young men. They have not spent much time in the barracks in the last five weeks, they have been in the field. This is, in my view, not a general’s war, a colonel’s war, or a captain’s war. This is a corporal’s war. It will be fought in back alleys and on rooftops around the world by small units and individual units of Marines. That is the type and kind of training skills we are providing them, to increase their ability to reach out and touch in a very angry way if necessary, but to defend themselves and their fellow marines and the sites that they are tasked to defend.

Are we just in the beginning stages of this new kind of war?
This is Doug O’Dell, citizen, speaking, but I think that the president [George W. Bush] has put his finger on the facts, that this is a war that will take a long time and we must be prepared to deal with that as fact. I would hope that the sailors, soldiers [and] Marines could be home by Christmas, and they will. The question is just which Christmas. I don’t make light of that. It’s going to be a long struggle. We have to reflect on what the president said about the global nature of this war. Afghanistan is just one place. It’s going to take a long while.

What kinds of domestic operations do you envision for this brigade?
The elements of the brigade could be employed at the specific request of the civilian authorities [at] the state and local level, coordinated through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. You can see a whole shopping list in the world and the U.S in which we could be used: the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics. There are already major protection plans in place at those events, but if the perceived threat were to increase then certain of our capabilities would be potentially helpful.

Are there any concerns about involving the military in civilian law enforcement?
We should not lose sight of the fact that state and local authorities have a lot of capability that don’t require federal and military assistance. Elected officials of the state and local governments would have to determine that our capabilities would enhance the protection of the event and the participants before we would come forth.

In addition to protecting potential targets from terrorists, is part of the mission also going to involve rooting out terrorists and apprehending them?
No, that’s counter-terrorism. Anti-terrorism is more of a deterrent effort, but we will deter by offensive and defensive means.

What will be your first response if you see a threat?
I can give you a generic example. One of the major skill sets that we have been conducting with the anti-terrorism battalion is the advanced surveillance capabilities. If we perceive that we are being observed, and if we believe that observation is to no good end, then we will go out and eliminate it. And I will not get any more specific [about] how we will do that.