Reporter's notebook: Leadership conference

HERSHEY, Pa. -- The Eastern Pennsylvania town that is home to the Hershey chocolate dynasty and bills itself as the "Sweetest Place on Earth" rolled out the red carpet this week for the Executive Leadership Conference.

The nearly 800 delegates spent three days discussing "IT and Business Results: The New Reality" and munching plenty of candy bars. But perhaps the piece de resistance was the three-tiered liquid chocolate fountain in the Chocolate Ballroom where attendees retired for dessert Oct. 25. Using tiny sticks, they could pierce marshmallows, cake, fruit and even pretzel sticks to dip into the molten chocolate.

But that was not the only activity on tap during a three-day conference sponsored by the American Council for Technology (ACT) and the Industry Advisory Council (IAC).

Politics

Chris Matthews, the host of NBC's "Hardball," analyzed the election season for the attendees. He said the public will pick their issue: taxes, Iraq or gay marriages. But he predicted a clean victory for Bush by the morning of Nov. 3.

Nevertheless, Matthews said this election season has changed politics forever. "The blogging thing is changing politics overnight," he said. "Now [Matt] Drudge has become the New York Times."

Terrorism

Former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen turned the talk from politics to terrorism when he addressed the conference.

"The 9-11 Commission report said we're safer, but we're not safe by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "We still have people who have access to technology that can bring us back to the Stone Age."

Now an international consultant, Cohen, the Defense secretary in the Clinton administration and a Republican senator from Maine for 18 years, declined to say whom he would support for president on Election Day.

Nevertheless, whoever wins must reduce the worldwide nuclear arsenal because "deterrence doesn't work against terrorists," he said.

"It will not be the military who will win this war against terrorism," Cohen said.

Terrorism, he said, will be defeated by governments such as the United States that protect their cities and people, make weapons of mass destruction unavailable and share information about terrorist activities with other nations.

"We have to have an easier sharing of information just in our own country," he said. "But then, we have to have sharing to other countries."

Until that time, he said, "no one is safe anymore. You can't go on a vacation to Bali. You can't go to Madrid and take a train ride."

Improving government

The talk turned to government itself when actor and comedian Ben Stein led a panel discussion on improving government.

If the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service can check the authenticity of Social Security numbers, why can't the Transportation Security Administration do the same for air travelers, he asked.

No easy answer to that one, said Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and information technology at the Office of Management and Budget, and James Lockhart, SSA's deputy commissioner.

"There are privacy laws, and they are very important," Lockhart said, adding, "we share a lot of data with the Homeland Security Department, and they with us."

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