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Terror Spreads Fear Across America - 2001-11-07

The terrorist attacks in the United States have been confined to locations on the East Coast, but officials say fear has spread throughout the country. Some members of Congress recently met with California officials to hear about concerns on the West Coast.

The eight members of Congress are all Democrats, and all represent districts in California. They include Barbara Lee, congresswoman for the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, who was the only member of Congress to oppose the use of force against terrorist targets in Afghanistan. Also on the panel was congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald from Southern California, a member of the newly created congressional federal homeland security task force.

The delegation met with law enforcement officers and public health officials. Diane Watson, a congresswoman from Los Angeles, said the people behind the terror attacks in New York and Washington took the lives of innocent people and courageous rescue workers. "But most insidiously, they took from Americans their faith in their own security, their sense of safety, their sense of freedom to go about the normalcy of their daily lives," she said.

Ms. Watson says the job of elected officials is to keep the public safe and ensure that the terrorist threat does not limit the openness of American society.

The public meeting was hosted by the Los Angeles county board of supervisors, which oversees a region that includes Los Angeles and more than 80 smaller communities. Local officials say the public is most worried about anthrax sent through the mail. Los Angeles Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke says the county has specialists on hazardous materials who respond to reports of suspicious substances. "But I also have to say to you that these resources have been sorely overused recently, not as a result of any anthrax that has been found in Los Angeles County but as a result of fear and hysteria in the population," she said. "We have had constant calls everywhere, and our health department has been stretched beyond their ability to respond."

Still, the county official says investigators must respond to every call and examine each suspicious substance.

Los Angeles Police Department Captain Greg Roper says his department's anti-terrorist unit started running in high gear six years ago, after the bombing of the Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City. The worst terrorist incident until that time inside the United States, the bombing was the work of a domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh. "We started preparing right after Murrah," said Captain Roper. "We started running. We've been running ever since, and since the eleventh of September, we're running ever faster. What we need out of the federal government is more equipment, additional training, and good timely information that we can sink our teeth into."

Officials say they are working to overcome barriers to communication among federal, state and local jurisdictions. Gregory Rabinovitz is an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who specializes in weapons of mass destruction. He says that last weekend alone he answered questions from a dozen local police and fire departments that are being flooded with reports about suspicious letters. He says in each case, authorities must assess the level of threat. "Some of the criteria we use in that threat assessment include: Is there an articulated threat; that is, is there something in this letter which says the person who sent it intends to harm you? Second, is there a powder? Is there a powder and a threat? Among other things, who is the recipient of the letter? Clearly there are different types of targets," he said. "As we know, the places where these letters have been received for real have been quite high-credibility targets."

Anthrax-laced letters have been received at government offices and by news organizations, but not by the general public.

Still, these officials say that people are nervous. The Los Angeles police department's anti-terrorist unit has responded to 300 suspicious incidents since September 11, sometimes sparked by something as minor as powdered sugar that had fallen from somebody's donut or mildew on roses.

Local officials ask the public to use common sense and not to panic, but they say they are available 24 hours a day to respond to concerns and suspicions.

A consultant to the California government in Sacramento says the state needs at least $50 million to improve its public health system in response to the current threat.

Law enforcement officials, too, say they need more money for added security for the state's water supply, and they are looking to Washington to get it.

President Bush has proposed a $1.5 billion fund to confront the bioterrorist threat. But Democrats want $7 billion, more than $1 billion of it for vaccines and antibiotics.

Just as important, state officials say they need better information about the nature of the threat in order to ease the fears of an anxious public.