THE PENTAGON — Any U.S. troops who assist civil authorities who come under attack by migrants will not be armed, Defense Secretary James Mattis clarified on Wednesday.
“There has been no call for any lethal force from DHS [Department of Homeland Security],” Mattis told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. “There is no armed element going in. I will determine it, based on what DHS asks for and a mission analysis.”
Mattis spoke the day after retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff, signed a “cabinet order” giving active-duty U.S. troops on the southwest border new authorities to assist U.S. Border and Customs Protection personnel.
If border police came under attack, unarmed military police could respond, but they would be equipped with shields and batons, not firearms, Mattis said.
A reporter noted that Kelly’s cabinet order gives troops the authority to use lethal force, if necessary.
“I have the authority,” Mattis replied, noting that pictures of troops on the border show that they do not have weapons. “Relax. Don’t worry about it.”
Even though the order was not signed by President Trump, Kelly has the legal authority to convey the president’s instructions to the, Mattis insisted.
“He has the authority to do what the president tells him to do,” Mattis said. “He signed the memo out for the White House.”
Neither the troops’ mission nor the standing rules for the use of force have changed, Mattis told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. The roughly 5,700 active-duty troops in California, Arizona, and Texas do not have the authority to arrest migrants, nor are they tasked with law enforcement.
“There is no arrest authority under Posse Comitatus for the U.S. federal troops,” Mattis said. “That can be done, but it has to be done in accordance with the law. That has not been done, nor has it been anticipated.”
If U.S. troops detain any migrants who attack border police, the migrants would quickly be turned over to civil authorities, he said.
“There’s no violation of Posse Comitatus,” Mattis said. “There’s no violation at all. We’re not going to arrest or anything else. To stop someone from beating on someone and turn them over to someone else – this is minutes, not even hours, OK?”
This is not the first time active-duty troops have been deployed to the U.S./Mexico border, Mattis pointed outed. In the 1990s, Mattis was in led Marines who were dispatched to the border under President Clinton to help stop illegal immigration as part of “Operation Gatekeeper.”
In 1997, a Marine corporal shot and killed an 18-year-old goat-herder, whom he thought was firing at the Marines. Task & Purpose asked Mattis on Wednesday what steps he is taking to make sure another such incident does not recur.
“I’m not going to dignify that,” Mattis replied. “They’re not even carrying guns for Christ’s sake.”