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Before the Oklahoma blast, the militias could count on two freshmen Republicans in Congress for staunch support. Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho has publicly noted that "black helicopters" operated by the Federal Government -- a common demonic image in militia lore -- have harassed Idaho citizens. Representative Steve Stockman of Texas sent a concerned letter to Attorney General Janet Reno in March when he heard rumors that the Federal Government was about to raid local militias. "A paramilitary-style attack against Americans who pose no risk to others ... would run the risk of an irreparable breach between the Federal Government and the public," wrote Stockman.

Last week, however, both Stockman and Chenoweth were trying to explain themselves. Stockman had the most difficult part of it. His office had been faxed a "first update" on the Oklahoma bombing at about the same time as the blast. The source: Wolverine Productions, the Michigan home base of antigovernment agitator and shortwave-radio broadcaster Mark Koernke. Says Stockman: "I don't even know the woman that sent me the fax. I mean, all I know is that she was Orange County [Texas] Republican chairman for a while, and then I heard she just up and disappeared." In fact, according to the woman, Libby Molley, Stockman has helped out Koernke's broadcast by providing "us with information." Stockman's chief of staff explained that the Congressman's office may have sent Wolverine information on the Contract with America, the Republican agenda, but no one knew anything about Koernke or his views.

For her part, Chenoweth fired off several letters a day to newspapers that criticized her, and refused to denounce citizen militias, even as she deplored the loss of life in Oklahoma. She receives support from militias beyond her state: the Militia of Montana sells videos of her campaign speeches. Chenoweth has proposed legislation that would require federal agents to get the approval of local law enforcers before carrying weapons during an arrest or investigation.

If the militia's friends in Washington are muted nowadays, the zealots can count on one loud voice at the state level: Colorado state senator Charles Duke, 52, a fervent leader of a movement to reaffirm the 10th Amendment and strengthen states' rights. Local rights are, of course, a militia tenet. And Duke plays up those sympathies. At a rally last week, Duke lent weight to the scuttlebutt that the government was behind the Oklahoma bombing. Though criticized, he still warned darkly of "serious allegations of government involvement" that his office is probing. "More people die from skiing every year than are hurt by militias," says Duke. What critics are calling "ultraright," he adds, is "really just people that believe in the Constitution." --By Nina Burleigh/ Washington. With reporting by Hilary Hylton/ Austin and Richard Woodbury/Denver