The Department of Homeland Security held an unusual closed-door briefing to Kansas lawmakers on Tuesday that briefly cast a sense of 9/11-era uncertainty over the Statehouse.
One lawmaker said the briefing centered on contacts by individuals trying to gain access to technological and agricultural information.
Military personnel in unmarked white buses arrived shortly after noon to whisk House Democrats, and later Republicans, to Forbes Field in Topeka, an installation maintained by the Kansas National Guard. Senators will receive their briefing later this month.
It turns out that the session has been in the works since at least December, according to a letter from the Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office to legislative leaders.
Still, senior lawmakers couldn’t recall an event quite like it.
“Even during 9/11, we didn’t do anything like this,” House Democratic Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat who has been in office three decades, said. “Totally not routine.”
But, after returning from Forbes more than two hours later, Sawyer painted a more benign picture.
“It was just a routine kind of security briefing, kind of an update on how they’re trying to keep Kansas safe,” Sawyer said.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat, also described the event as a routine security briefing.
“It was nice to tour the facility, but somewhat anticlimactic, given the buildup,” she tweeted.
The Kansas Adjutant General’s Office said in a statement that the briefing was held at the request of Gov. Laura Kelly. Lawmakers toured Forbes Field and during a closed session “were also given an overview of homeland security in Kansas, which included information applicable to the security of the state and its citizens.”
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said the briefing included information “regarding contacts by individuals interested in gaining access to technological information,” such as from aircraft manufacturers and agricultural information, including about crops. He said the emphasis in the briefing was on “foreign concerns.”
Carmichael said lawmakers were given examples of individuals under federal indictment “to try to impress upon us that fact.”
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said the briefing involved information that Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt wanted lawmakers to know “for being safe.” Asked if lawmakers were warned against general foreign threats and attempts to access information, Ryckman nodded yes.
The briefing wasn’t listed on the public calendars for the House and the Senate. Reporters weren’t allowed to attend and legislative staff was also excluded.
The first public acknowledgment of the event surfaced Tuesday morning when Sawyer, speaking on the House floor, briefly noted the time lawmakers needed to arrive for the ride over to Forbes.
Ryckman said Kansas Adjutant General Lee Tafanelli and the Kansas Attorney General’s Office approached him a couple months ago about arranging a briefing at a secure facility. The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on its involvement.
As lawmakers left the Capitol, Ryckman’s office released a letter dated Tuesday from Deputy Attorney General Jay Emler, outlining a legal justification for the secret briefing. Republicans and Democrats were briefed separately, and under Kansas law the parties are allowed to hold closed-door caucus meetings, but rarely do in practice.
Emler’s letter offered only a vague indication of what would be discussed.
“The closed session will include information applicable to the security of the State and its citizens” that would have a negative effect “on the ability to protect related security interest” if disclosed, Emler wrote.
The intent of the meeting is to educate lawmakers on issues they may encounter as part of their official duties, he wrote.
“Understanding the nature of these issues will increase awareness and prevent potential security missteps,” Emler wrote.