Agency initiates steps for selective draft
Congress shows little support for effort to draw skilled Americans
Saturday, March 13, 2004
By ERIC ROSENBERG
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON -- The government is taking the first steps toward a targeted military draft of Americans with special skills in computers and foreign languages.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is adamant that he will not ask Congress to authorize a draft, and officials at the Selective Service System, the independent federal agency that would organize any conscription, stress that the possibility of a so-called "special skills draft" is remote.
Nonetheless, the agency has begun the process of creating the procedures and policies to conduct such a targeted draft in case military officials ask Congress to authorize it and the lawmakers agree to such a request.
"Talking to the manpower folks at the Department of Defense and others, what came up was that nobody foresees a need for a large conventional draft such as we had in Vietnam," said Richard Flahavan, a spokesman for the Selective Service System. "But they thought that if we have any kind of a draft, it will probably be a special skills draft."
Flahavan said Selective Service planning for a possible draft of linguists and computer experts began last fall after Pentagon personnel officials said the military needed more people with skills in those areas.
A targeted registration and draft "is strictly in the planning stage," he said, adding that "the whole thing is driven by what appears to be the more pressing and relevant need today" -- the deficit in language and computer experts.
The spokesman said it could take about two years to "to have all the kinks worked out."
The agency already has a special system to register and draft health care personnel ages 20 to 44 in more than 60 specialties if necessary in a crisis. According to Flahavan, the agency will expand this system to be able to rapidly register and draft computer specialists and linguists, should the need ever arise. But he stressed that the agency has received no request from the Pentagon to do so.
Congress, which would have to authorize a draft, has shown no interest in taking such a step.
Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Sen. Carl Levin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said a draft has little support among lawmakers.
A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, agreed. "There are massive operations under way to retrain soldiers" for more pressing duties and to recruit specialties in demand such as language experts, said Harald Stavenas, Hunter's spokesman.
The military draft ended in 1973 as the U.S. commitment in Vietnam waned, beginning the era of the all-volunteer force. Mandatory registration for the draft was suspended in 1975 but resumed in 1980 by President Carter after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. About 13.5 million men, ages 18 to 25, are currently registered with the Selective Service.
The military has had particular difficulty attracting and retaining language experts, especially people knowledgeable about Arabic and various Afghan dialects. To address this need, the Army has a new pilot program under way to recruit Arabic speakers into the service's Ready Reserves. The service has signed up about 150 people into the training program.
A Pentagon official familiar with personnel issues stressed that the armed forces are against any form of conscription but acknowledged that the groundwork is already under way at the Selective Service System.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill that would reinstate the draft. The legislation has minimal support with only 13 House lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors. A corresponding bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Fritz Hollings, the outgoing South Carolina Democrat, has no co-sponsors.