A terrorist's worst enemy Danger: Suddenly, security experts are the most popular guys in town as panicked overseas businessmen realize that, to those who hate Americans, any American will do.

August 29, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Frank Johns sits at his desk, made homey by a plate of gumdrops and a ceramic kitten, and contemplates all the hideous ways people die at the hands of terrorists.

A minute before, an aide had rushed in with news of the Planet Hollywood bombing in Cape Town on a yellow Post-it note. All day long, anxious executives have called Johns wondering if their overseas employees have become prime targets in the wake of the U.S. missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. When Johns gets home that evening, he talks on the phone until 11 p.m., figuring out how to evacuate 25 computer executives from a facility in Pakistan.

"Danger is your business," says Johns' assistant, Lois Holder, handing him a new stack of messages from white-knuckled executives one afternoon this week. "And business is good."

From the comfort of their cozy desks at U.S. command centers, security experts like Johns are busier than ever dealing with the grim business of terror. Dubbing themselves the CIA for the corporate world, these security firms thrive when the terrorist threat is high, offering executives everything from hourly security reports to sharpshooters on company jets.

Johns works at the security and intelligence firm Pinkerton Inc., one of several major international outfits that reported a dramatic rise in new clients in the past week, after the U.S. struck two targets in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

At 60, Johns hardly seems the blood-and-guts type -- he wears gramps-style suspenders on his pants, keeps pussycat windchimes over his desk and allows his yellow mutt, Cassie, to sit in an office chair like a client. Clearly, he has mellowed from his days in the early 1980s as the Air Force antiterrorism division chief, but he still thinks with a battle-hardened brain.

Seconds after hearing of the Cape Town explosion, he rants against a client's naivete about safety. "Just this morning I told some guy who was planning an awards dinner, 'Why in the hell do you want to do it in South Africa?' " he grouses. "Go to Disney World."

Increasingly, U.S. companies feel vulnerable as "soft targets" for terrorists who do not want to bother with American embassies. Like government outposts, U.S. firms are symbols of American culture, but without the Marines and other military to protect them.

"More and more, the trend is that companies with large investments provide for their own security instead of relying on [foreign governments] for protection," says Ian Lesser, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp., the private research institution.

Security companies offer a range of services: They can sweep a corporate boardroom for bugs or escort an executive to a meeting in an armored car. Mainly, they aim to keep corporations open overseas, convinced that signs of cowering do more harm than good.

For security firms, profits are flowing in. Pinkerton, the nation's first private security firm, founded nearly 150 years ago, reported revenues exceeding $1 billion for the fiscal year ending in 1997, an increase of 11 percent over the previous year. GM, a major client, is considering expanding its multimillion-dollar contract in the near future to cover all of its 190 foreign facilities.

"They're the eyes and ears of GM as far as we're concerned," says Dan Whiteman, who manages the global threat assessment division for the car giant, which hired Pinkerton four years ago.

Whiteman called Pinkerton immediately after the embassy bombing in Kenya this month and followed Pinkerton's advice to close a Nairobi plant for a day. Earlier this year, the company evacuated 54 GM employees (in Chevy Blazers) during the Jakarta uprising. Nowadays, GM is extra-cautious -- the company warns overseas staffers not to wear Detroit Red Wings T-shirts for fear the employees will risk looking too American.

Across the security industry, business is booming.

Air Security International Inc., a global security firm based in Houston, has picked up about 20 new clients over the past week, says Charlie LeBlanc, the firm's managing director. In this same period, Air Security has sent armed guards to the tarmacs at 15 different airports overseas to protect executives in cities such as Budapest, Prague and Warsaw.

These days, security firms are even busy on the Internet. Air Security's Web site offers mail-order gas masks and a kit to detect aircraft tampering (including portable ultraviolet light). Pinkerton received 20,000 hits on its Web site one day this week -- a company record.

But some industry insiders expect problems: companies that spy illegally or use guards with shady backgrounds. Charles Englehart, a director at Kroll Associates, an Ohio-based security firm, says as the industry thrives it also gives way to less polished competitors. "I don't know what's more dangerous -- if a guard is thuggy, or just stupid," he says.

Either way, most mainstream private security firms seek out former CIA agents and military anti-terrorism experts instead of guards who work the food court at the mall.

Johns, the Pinkerton agent, headed special investigations for the Air Force in Tehran for in the 1970s after a 25-year military career. Private security may not have the action of government work -- Johns breaks to watch Oprah every day -- but the pace can be frenetic.

"When the sun is shining and there's no terrorism, it's like, 'Who needs you?' " says Johns. "But then, all of a sudden something happens, and everybody needs you."

Pub Date: 8/29/98

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