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What Role The U.S. Military Is Playing At The Mexican Border


All right. The U.S. military was not involved in yesterday's clashes. As we just heard, it was Customs and Border Protection that was firing tear gas. But there are about 8,000 U.S. military now deployed at the border providing protection for Border Patrol, helping with logistics and support.

For more on the role those troops are playing, let me bring in retired Lieutenant General Steve Blum, who led the National Guard from 2003 to 2008. General Blum, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEVE BLUM: It's good to be back.

KELLY: What is your reaction to yesterday's events, to the use of tear gas across the U.S.-Mexico border?

BLUM: Well, the use of tear gas anytime is unpleasant. It's intended to be. And it's an irritant, can be dangerous. But what I have understood is that Border Patrol agents felt threatened by rocks and other objects that were being hurled at them. And of course, a rock can be a lethal weapon. If it hit you in the head, you're just as dead as if you were shot by a bullet. So if they had legal authority to use it under the rules of use of force, then I guess it was an option open to them.

KELLY: One of the things that I think is maybe giving people pause is the photographs from the border yesterday were showing women and children who were downwind and who were affected by the tear gas. Those are optics. But does that change at all in your mind the way the situation should have unfolded?

BLUM: Well, I don't want to second-guess what happened. But first of all, the air moves. It - it's not precise, and there will be some people that are collaterally affected by it that you probably didn't intend to have the agent affect. But...

KELLY: It sounds as though you are uncomfortable with some aspects of what unfolded yesterday.

BLUM: Everybody should be uncomfortable when you witness women and children in distress. It's unsettling - I'm sure - to the Border Patrol agents that employed the gas themselves. But they probably enjoyed less things thrown at them like rocks and other hard objects that were causing them harm.

KELLY: To the question about rules of engagement and whether lethal force might be permissible if U.S. forces fear for their own security, and then they feel the need to act in self-defense, President Trump has said, yes, that he can envision that scenario. Defense Secretary Mattis has said no, that he says military police should use batons, should use shields, should not be carrying firearms. Do you see the defense secretary playing a role here of trying to rein in the White House when it comes to questions about lethal force?

BLUM: (Laughter) I don't know. My personal opinion has been for 43 and a half years when I was in uniform, I always insisted that my soldiers were armed and able to protect themselves at all times. I feel very strongly that the armed forces of the United States are called the armed forces for a reason. And when you put soldiers where their safety is at risk, I want them to have the ability to defend themselves and protect others if necessary. That's pretty clear-cut.

KELLY: In this current situation, does that risk escalation?

BLUM: Not really. You could make the argument that if they realize the soldiers are able to protect themselves, nobody is going to take liberties with them. It actually may make the situation safer.

I mean, pretend it's someone you care about that's in the armed forces, and they're down on the border. Everybody coming across there is not someone who's, you know, seeking asylum or even a better life. Some of those people are coyotes. They traffic in people. They're drug cartel members. And they do some horrific things, far worse than the effects of tear gas. And you have to be able to protect yourself.

KELLY: Do you see a distinction between military police and other active-duty members of the military in terms of authorization to use lethal force?

BLUM: Yes, absolutely I do, just as civilian law enforcement can do things that regular citizens can't do. But clearly, any soldier that's up front along the border, it would not be unreasonable for them to be armed.

KELLY: General Blum, thank you.

BLUM: Good talking to you again.

KELLY: That is retired Lieutenant General Steve Blum. He used to run the National Guard. He also was deputy commander at Northern Command, which is in charge of U.S. military forces at the southwest border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.