Uncle Sam wants to call you


Anti-terrorism: A small Homeland Security team has the enormous job of establishing connections with the nation's 25 million businesses.

March 17, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Like millions of Americans, Jeannie Hong owns her own business, the Magic Dry Cleaners in Ellicott City. She has never been contacted by the Department of Homeland Security in Washington and doesn't expect she ever will be.

She learns about terrorist threats and raised terror alert levels like most everyone else - by watching television or reading the newspaper.

"I wouldn't think any of that has anything to do with dry cleaning," she says.

Al Martinez-Fonts believes his new mission as head of the private-sector office at the Department of Homeland Security is to prove her wrong.

While intelligence agents are trying to discover terrorist secrets and law enforcement officers are guarding vital facilities with machine guns, Martinez-Fonts is playing his own critical role with a device as mundane as a telephone.

His job is to call Hong's dry cleaners and the other 25 million businesses in this country, from nuclear power plants to rural banks, to make sure they are taking every precaution they can to prevent an attack, and, in some cases, to warn them when intelligence suggests their industries might be at risk.

For all the vague talk in Washington about "public-private partnerships," Martinez-Fonts says this is a big part of what "securing the homeland" means.

More than 85 percent of the nation's "critical infrastructure" - rail lines, airports, power plants, water facilities and food suppliers - is in private hands. DHS officials say it's their ability to rapidly communicate with these businesses before or after a possible attack that will ensure that the country's basic life support does not break down.

"My goal in life," Martinez-Fonts says, "is that every one of those businesses knows what to do and helps out" if a plot is discovered or an attack occurs.

A business "may have only two or three people," he says. "But can I give them a pamphlet? Can I give them a brochure? Can I help them attend an event? Do they need to talk to the local cop so that they know what needs to be done?"

Business owners such as Hong think this might be a little much. But Martinez-Fonts describes how a terrorist could use the computers in a rural bank to launch a cyber attack, collect fertilizer from a small garden store to make a bomb or steal flammable chemicals used by dry cleaners to build a weapon.

Reaching every business in America, though, even if just to tell people to stock an emergency kit, serves a bureaucratic purpose as well.

By becoming the main contact between government and business on the subject of terrorism, the department is carefully positioning itself to be at the helm of the response to the next terrorist disaster.

Whereas that responsibility used to fall to the FBI and the Department of Defense, Homeland Security has edged its way into the epicenter of any potential crisis as the primary agency charged with organizing a response and keeping the country running in the midst of turmoil.

"I'm the bridge between business and government," Martinez-Fonts said recently from his office at the heavily secured former Naval Security Station in northwest Washington. "In a sandwich, I'm the meat."

So far, though, he and his unit have a way to go. By his count, he personally has spoken with representatives of 12,000 businesses, usually at conferences, and attended about 500 seminars and gatherings.

He tells them, as he did recently at a meeting of business leaders at the Washington Convention Center, that when he says the department intends to call them, he really does mean the phone will ring.

If, for example, the department needs to warn port facilities across the country of a possible threat, or reach out to manufacturers for supplies in a time of crisis, it will launch its novel new computer system that can make 6,000 recorded phone calls each minute.

The system can also send out faxes and e-mails, Martinez-Fonts tells them proudly.

So far, some of the businesses that have gotten warning calls haven't been pleased. Especially in the beginning, the calls were vague, at times irrelevant and far too frequent, many business leaders say.

DHS at one point was sending out a warning a week, though mostly to high-target industries such as nuclear power plants.

Marian Hopkins, director of public policy at the Business RoundTable, an umbrella group for the 150 largest companies in America, said the department is doing better.

"Things have greatly improved," Hopkins says. "There are more details, more focus. [Homeland Security] is constantly asking, `Are we hitting the mark?' What you don't need to do is send information about the transportation sector to sectors that don't need it."

Martinez-Fonts agrees:

"If you use it too often, or use too many phone calls, people say, what the hell are you calling me for, telling me the [terror alert level] is going down. I already saw that on CNN."

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