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Homeland security legislation raises awareness, concern

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Images of passenger airliners crashing into buildings and environmental workers scrubbing down offices contaminated by anthrax stirred fear and resolve after Sept. 11.

Six months later, supporters of anti-terrorism measures in the Oklahoma Legislature say their biggest opponent is complacency as they work to have the bills placed into the state's law books.

``I think people think that the crisis has passed, but it hasn't,'' said Rep. John Nance, R-Bethany, the author of several bills aimed at improving security at state and local public buildings and agencies _ some of which have been voted down.

``I'm not an alarmist. I'm a realist. We need to put in place screening of some sort that at least gives us more security.''

Supporters say the state should waste no time to implement measures that give the governor and state agencies the authority they need to respond to a massive biological, chemical or nuclear attack.

``We face an enemy today unlike we have ever seen before,'' said Rep. Bill Paulk, D-Oklahoma City, author of two massive anti-terrorism measures. ``We are the enemy to those people, people who are willing to use any means, any method, to destroy our society, people who are willing to sacrifice their own lives _ like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II.

``If they're willing to fly a plane into a building, they would be willing to spread bacteria that cause disease.''

The delivery of anthrax-laced letters along the East Coast resulted in a total of 23 cases of the disease, five of whom died from its inhalation form.

But Nance said a bioterrorist attack could be far more devastating. He said 100 pounds of anthrax bacterium delivered by a crop duster in an aerosolized mist over a metropolitan area would cause 100,000 people to get sick and as many as 24,000 deaths.

``I don't understand how people can listen to that and say it can't happen,'' Nance said.

But other lawmakers have urged caution. They maintain that more study is needed before broad, sweeping powers are given to state officials, powers that could suspend normal civil and property rights.

``Citizens expect us to have a prudent response,'' said Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow. ``We need to balance the need to respond to a crisis with the need to preserve freedom.''

Rep. Richard Phillips, R-Warr Acres, has expressed concern about a new and expensive layer of bureaucracy in the creation of a state office of homeland security.

``It should be able to be handled by the law enforcement agencies that we have, and we have quite a few,'' Phillips said.

Gov. Frank Keating has expressed similar concerns, according to Keating's communications director, Dan Mahoney.

``The governor has said in the past that he does not see the need for a permanent director of homeland security,'' Mahoney said. ``There's no reason in the governor's mind to create a new bureaucracy.''

Keating has signed legislation that makes Public Safety Commissioner Bob Ricks the interim director of homeland security in Oklahoma. Ricks, former head of the FBI in Oklahoma City, was recruited by Keating to join his cabinet following Keating's election in 1994.

Phillips said he believes the duties of homeland security should remain within the Department of Public Safety.

``Every American and every Oklahoman needs to change their way of life. We are more vulnerable. This legislation is addressing that,'' Phillips said.

``But we need to be careful about how far the whiplash affect takes us.''

Legislation pending in the Senate has raised concerns about compliance with the Open Records Act.

The measure by Sen. Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow, would close security plans, security assessments and intelligence gathering that is relative to local law enforcement.

Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said law enforcement already has broad authority to keep the details of its investigations confidential.

The measure was proposed out of concern that state and local authorities might not get cooperation from federal authorities worried about keeping the information secret.

``Anything that the feds say is secret, is secret. It's secret at our level too,'' Thomas said.

State lawmakers have been forced to consider the unthinkable as they debated legislation whose provisions would be triggered by a bioterrorism event, a chemical or nuclear attack or a natural disaster.

``The bottom line is that we have some kind of preparedness,'' Nance said. ``You've got to have some kind of order and you've got to have some power.''

Paulk described one of his measures, the Catastrophic Emergency Health Powers Act, as ``the nastiest bill'' he had seen in 14 years in the Legislature.

``The fact that we have to make plans for weapons of mass destruction makes it a terrible bill,'' Paulk said. ``But we have to make preparations to isolate and quarantine people, to take over facilities.''

The measure outlines procedures for the governor to declare an emergency and spells out the duties of public health authorities, including quick detection of a bioterrorism event and the authority to quarantine and isolate infected individuals.

The bill also provides compensation to the owners of property, including hospitals and other structures, that might be appropriated during a bioterrorism emergency and provides for the property's destruction under certain circumstances.
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