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Selective Service Registration Comes Under Fire Again


There hasn't been a draft in this country since 1973. That year, with the Vietnam War winding down, conscription ended; the U.S. military became an all-volunteer force. But to this day, young men still have to register with the Selective Service. That obligation has been questioned in the past, and it's coming under fire again. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: American citizen or not, here legally or not, if you happen to be a young man, Selective Service Director Donald Benton has a message for you.


DONALD BENTON: If you're 18 years old and you're in this country, you need to register for the Selective Service.

WELNA: If you don't, you could be fined up to a quarter-million dollars, denied federal student loans, barred from federal jobs and, at least in theory, jailed.

EDWARD HASBROUCK: I'm one of the people who was actually prosecuted and imprisoned back in the 1980s for refusing to register.

WELNA: That's Edward Hasbrouck. He spent 4 1/2 months in prison. At the time, he was one of more than half a million draft-aged men who failed to register. Hasbrouck says the Justice Department chose his case and those of a few others for show trials.

HASBROUCK: Mine went to an extremely gung-ho former combat Marine lieutenant in Boston who was then-assistant U.S. attorney by the name of Robert Mueller. It was actually his first high-profile case.

WELNA: The Selective Service has been a political football. President Gerald Ford actually mothballed it in the mid-1970s. It was revived by another president, Jimmy Carter, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.


JIMMY CARTER: I have determined that the Selective Service System must now be revitalized.

WELNA: That same year, at the Republican convention that nominated him to challenge Carter, Ronald Reagan panned the draft sign-up.


RONALD REAGAN: I'll tell you where I stand - I do not favor a peacetime draft or registration.

WELNA: But as president, Reagan did a U-turn and embraced draft registration. Still, it's been more than three decades since the Justice Department last prosecuted a draft resister. I asked Director Benton if someone who failed to register today would face prosecution.

BENTON: I'm not sure. And I think if we're not in an active mobilization, they likely do not pursue it.

WELNA: A blue-ribbon congressional commission is now weighing whether the Selective Service is worth keeping at all. When Benton appeared before that panel last month in Washington, he called his $26 million a year operation a national insurance policy.


BENTON: It is the responsibility of the United States government to be prepared for the next unexpected emergency; the Selective Service is that preparation. We are ready now because of our active registration program.

WELNA: The Selective Service tells NPR more than 16 million men are registered for a possible draft; most did that by checking a box while getting driver's licenses or applying for student loans. At the hearing, other experts warned this list of potential draftees, whose addresses don't get updated, is hardly reliable. Bernie Rostker directed the Selective Service during the Carter administration.


BERNARD ROSTKER: The current system of registration is ineffective and, frankly, less than useless.

WELNA: Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled this year that because all jobs in the military are now open to women, male-only registration is unconstitutional, a ruling the Trump administration's appealing. What's more, the Army estimates just 2% of potential draftees are both fit and inclined to serve. James Stewart is the Assistant Defense Secretary for Manpower.

JAMES STEWART: I mean, ultimately, that's what we want in our force, is those individuals that believe in this nation and are willing to fight for it.

WELNA: Meanwhile, every young man still has to sign up for the long-defunct draft. Whether women should, too, or no one at all, the commission's to advise Congress early next year. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANA CAPRIX'S "BASE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.