Ashcroft cajoles firms to share sensitive info

With limited money to protect a vast public and private infrastructure, Attorney General John Ashcroft called on the business community last week to share information to help fight potential terrorist threats facing the United States.

"We recognize that citizens and private businesses have information, knowledge and capabilities that can help in the war against terrorism," Ashcroft told a gathering of business and law enforcement officials on June 23. "We also recognize that information sharing is a two-way street."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Ashcroft said information sharing has become a critical component of the law enforcement arsenal, and private industry has a role to play in helping relay information and intelligence to federal authorities.

"America's private-sector businesses and entrepreneurs can be critical allies and resources in support of our national security and economic welfare," Ashcroft said. "We cannot overlook the potential contributions that American businesses can make to intelligence gathering and information sharing."

The attorney general spoke at a symposium for law enforcement and private industry sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Veridian Corp., an information solutions company based in Arlington, Va.

During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan welcomed observations of the Soviet economy made by Americans who conducted business in the Soviet Union, Ashcroft said. And U.S. business leaders often knew more about the USSR's economy than intelligence agencies knew. The same philosophy may hold true today, he said.

"More than 80 percent of our nation's critical infrastructure is owned and controlled by the private sector. Private efforts and corporate security must be a part of our nation's campaign to detect, disrupt and dismantle networks of terror," Ashcroft said.

The business community already has deployed its vast resources to protect its investments, and it is working with the federal government on many security issues.

Most Fortune 500 companies already have top-level security officials on staff to manage physical security and cybersecurity.

For example, Robert Liscouski, until recently the top cybersecurity executive for the Coca-Cola Co., is now assistant secretary of infrastructure protection at the Homeland Security Department.

The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading corporations, has developed a secure telecom system that allows DHS officials and members of the roundtable to communicate in the event of an emergency.

The landline communications network was set up after Sept. 11 in preparation of another terrorist attack. But DHS already has used it to notify CEOs about changes in the nation's alert level, according to a spokesman.

Asa Hutchinson, DHS undersecretary for border and transportation security, told the June 23 gathering that he often talks to people within the business community to explain what is going on and what a heightened state of alert means for them.

The business community also launched the Information Technology Information Sharing Awareness Council, an organization that encourages businesses to share information anonymously about cybersecurity vulnerabilities, according to Larry Estrada, government affairs manager for Hewlett-Packard Co. "These types of venues are the right ones for public/private partnerships," Estrada said.

Robert Bryden, vice president of corporate security at FedEx Corp., told the symposium that FedEx has distributed radiation-detection devices to its overseas facilities to guard against terrorists who may attempt to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into the United States.

Although most of corporate America has better protections for its critical infrastructures than the U.S. government, "we will have to find a way to get classified information to first responders and corporations," Bryden said.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, said businesses are more likely to cooperate with the federal government since the passage of the Homeland Security Act, which limited release of certain information under the Freedom of Information Act.

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