When presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain introduced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate last week, the Arizona senator emphasized her role as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard.
Later, when questions were raised about Palin’s lack of experience in national or international affairs, the McCain campaign pointed again to her military command experience as governor.
When critics dismissed her role as largely titular, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds retorted: "Any decision she has made as the commander of the (Alaska) National Guard that’s deployed overseas is more of a decision than Barack Obama’s been making as he’s been running for president for the last two years."
But the governor has no command authority overseas — or anywhere in the United States other than Alaska, says Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, the service commander of the Alaska National Guard.
"When members of the National Guard are federalized, they work for the president," Campbell said Wednesday. "It’s not just overseas. They could be federalized to go to other states, or they could even be federalized in the state."
Occasions in which Palin does retain command authority over the 4,200-member Alaska National Guard are whenever the guard responds to in-state natural disasters and civic emergencies, said Campbell, who also serves as commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
"We’ve deployed individuals in state service all over the state under Sarah Palin," he said. "We had defense men down in Seward for the (Mount) Marathon run doing security.
"Out west and northwest we had erosion problems and the National Guard was involved in some of the protection out there. About three days ago, the Army National Guard picked up a lady from Little Diomede … at the request of state troopers."
Did Palin directly approve each of those activities?
No, Campbell said. The governor has granted him authority to act on his own in most cases, including life-or-death emergencies when a quick response is required, or minor day-to-day operations.
"Some authorities have been given to me that she has acknowledged that I can execute," he said. "For others I have to ask her each time."
The recent decision to deploy a C-17 cargo plane from the Alaska Air National Guard to Louisiana to assist during the Hurricane Gustav response was an occasion in which he briefed the governor’s office and sought its approval, Campbell said. But in that case, chief of staff Mike Nizich signed off on the deployment.
The flooding that occurred in Fairbanks in late July — in which the guard sent water trucks north to provide clean drinking water — didn’t require the governor’s approval, Campbell said.
Natural disasters are fairly sporadic, says Jeremy Zidek, public information officer for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which is part of Campbell’s department.
Last year, during Palin’s first year as governor, there wasn’t much action, Zidek said. "Thankfully we didn’t have any major disasters."
Former Gov. Bill Egan used National Guard troops after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. Former Gov. Tony Knowles did the same to help fight a wildfire that destroyed residences in the Mat-Su area in 1996.
Having served as governor from 1994 to 2002, Knowles considers his command of the Alaska National Guard one of the most important jobs he had. But he deferred a lot to the adjutant general he placed in charge, Knowles said.
"I had more military action in one week when I was in the Army as a sergeant (in Vietnam) than I had as commander in chief for eight years," he said.
In recent years, the Alaska National Guard has contributed heavily to the Pentagon’s global war on terror.
About 80 percent of its personnel have been deployed overseas since Sept. 11, 2001 — in the largest mobilization of the Alaska National Guard since World War II, Campbell said.
Army Guard members also staff the missile-defense site at Fort Greeley and Palin has some oversight of them, but "no launch authority," he said. She also gets briefed on military issues and homeland security, he said.
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens on Wednesday said Palin should be ready to serve as commander in chief of U.S. armed forces if McCain dies in office.
"She will be by the time that might happen, that’s for sure," Stevens said. "I think she can do the job as vice president. And should it fall on her shoulders to become president of the United States, I have no fear."
The Alaska National Guard receives about 75 percent of its funding from the federal government and 25 percent from the state, Campbell said. All $230 million in federal funding in 2007 was allocated for special purposes by Congress.
(E-mail George Bryson of the Anchorage Daily News at gbryson(at)adn.com.)