My Turn: Legislative cooperation is needed for homeland security

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

At a time when national leaders say the threat of a significant terrorist attack on our homeland is greater than ever, Alaska is becoming less prepared to prevent or respond than we were on Sept. 11, 2001.

The legislative majority has not only failed to act on measures to increase Alaska's security, but has proposed major budget cuts that reduce our public health and safety. Instead of improving our homeland security capabilities, these cuts force significant reductions in emergency management, public health and public safety - the essential bedrock of any response to an attack.

Sadly, majority lawmakers are either ignoring requests or making light of bills pending before them to improve Alaska's security. It is time to put partisan politics behind and work together to make our communities, state and nation more secure.

Every day we witness an expanding war between Israelis and Palestinians and increasing anger from religious and secular fanatics who view America's free and open society as an evil and disrupting influence.

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on April 5: " what Osama bin Laden failed to achieve on Sept. 11 is now being unleashed by the Israeli-Palestinian war." If we do not have successful intervention by the West, "Osama wins - and the war of civilizations will be coming to a theater near you."

As Alaska's point of contact for homeland security, the prospect of new terrorism attacks on America is the same message I have heard from President Bush, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge and other national leaders.

Last November, Gov. Tony Knowles submitted a comprehensive homeland security package to the Legislature. It would improve security for all Alaskans and prepare us for a terrorism attack. It also has the added benefit of improving our ability to deal with the other natural disasters Alaskans face, such as fires and earthquakes.

We reached out to local governments, including the Alaska Municipal League, to identify community homeland security needs. Their concerns are primarily with improved safety, health, and first-responder capabilities.

Thus far, legislative leaders have largely ignored Alaska's homeland security needs. Because of the delay, some of the recommendations can no longer be implemented this year, such as recruiting and training new troopers.

In response to legislative inaction, we have pared the package to three essentials:

1. Reimburse each department for emergency actions they took immediately after Sept. 11. This includes flying emergency blood supplies to the Lower 48, establishing security checkpoints along our border and around the pipeline, meeting federal security requirements so our airports could reopen and operating the State Emergency Coordination Center.

2. Provide authority to use federal funds to increase overall public health and public safety, improve planning, training, and response capabilities for bio-terrorism, and meet federal mandates for airport and transportation security.

3. Recommend comprehensive actions by each department to improve Alaska's overall ability to prevent or respond to a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction or manage the consequences of such an attack.

The Legislature's job is much more than deciding how much Alaska should spend. It is also deciding how much risk Alaska should take in protecting its citizens and infrastructure from an increasingly dangerous threat.

To me, inaction on these vital homeland security issues already shows that some in the Legislature are willing to take much more risk than I feel acceptable. I am confident the many federal agencies that understand and deal with this threat agree with me.

If the Legislature continues to ignore this vital concern, I only hope that the next major attack by terrorists does not come to a theater near any of us.

Oates is commissioner for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

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