The United States finds itself in an unprecedented vulnerable state as it welcomes a new president and rescues a battered economy. The downturn in the economy has gutted markets worldwide, fanning the already rising flames of anti-American sentiment. Our economy is reeling; creating a fertile ground for a terrorist attack and history demonstrates that terrorists view periods of transition as optimal times for attack. Now is not the time for corporate America to let down her guard.
The presidential transition will be a major undertaking that will last many months as President-elect Obama brings new people on board. This transition will likely be the most important in our lifetime. Simply put: we are teetering on the edge of a national security precipice and cannot, under any circumstance, move in the wrong direction.
In 2004, ten backpack bombs exploded in Madrid on a crowded train three days before a national election for prime minister. Just days after Britain elected Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007, terrorist tried to attack London’s nightclub district and the Glasgow airport. Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center during presidential transition periods — the 1993 bombing took place five weeks after President Clinton’s first inauguration and FBI Director Mueller had been on the job just one week when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place.
In addition to the inherent vulnerability that comes during a changing of the guard, the United States is trying to deal with staggering economic challenges — to the great pleasure of our enemies. Adam Gadahn, an American who heads Al-Qaeda’s propaganda machine, was silent for ten months before he released a video in early October wherein he discussed America’s economic problems with apparent glee. “The looming meltdown [is] threatening the crusaders economic system,” Gadahn said. The United States is “facing a crushing defeat,” he said.
A major goal of terrorist groups, in addition to killing innocent people, is to cause severe economic damage. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon, presented ideal targets for Al Qaeda — both are symbols of America’s political and economic dominance. The presidential candidates, news media and public have recently spent an enormous amount of time on the state of the economy while shifting focus away from national security — as if these efforts must be mutually exclusive. Though today’s harsh economic realities demand much attention, tunnel vision will not serve our country well.
The current economic climate has resulted in a flurry of corporate acquisitions, some of which will result in the U.S. government acquiring ownership interests in well-known financial institutions. Consolidation and cost cutting abounds. Most companies are looking for ways to save money. Unfortunately, security budgets are often one of the first things that companies cut.
If ever there was a time to not default to the norm — it’s now. The current state of the economy and the looming government transition creates a highly attractive atmosphere for terrorists. Our Achilles heel is exposed and waiting to be exploited. As such, corporations must continue to improve security programs, harden their assets and ensure appropriate funding to remain vigilant. This effort must include a comprehensive and ever-evolving strategy to detect, prevent and mitigate all hazards including improvised explosive devices, chemical and biological agents and cyber attacks. A cyber attack aimed at U.S. financial institutions would cause exponentially greater damage in our weakened economic state. Bottom line: corporate America must continue to invest in physical and cyber security to ensure the safety and well-being of employees, assets and customers.
The recent bail-out package was, in some respects, an easy decision for the federal government and fell in line with what Washington is comfortable doing — spending money. However, corporate America cannot count on the government to be everywhere all the time. It’s just not possible. Most of the country’s infrastructure and key resource sites — 85 percent — are privately owned, according to the Department of Homeland Security and there are over 70,000 such sites.
America’s current economic climate, the imminent administration change and the passage of time since 9/11 present the perfect storm for terrorists. All the more reason for companies to invest in security in order to heed the lessons learned throughout history. When it comes to security, smart companies work with, but do not rely upon the government. As distressing as it would be to be remembered as one of the companies that failed during these tumultuous economic times, it would pale by comparison if your company fell victim to a terrorist attack — especially when the writing is so visibly on the wall.
Scott Louis Weber is a partner at the law firm Patton Boggs LLP and is the former Senior Counselor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.