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On Wednesday, March 11, 2009, the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection convened a hearing, “The Mumbai Attacks: A Wake-Up Call for America’s Private Sector.” It was a hearing that lived up to its name.

Since 9/11 there has been a lot of talk about the importance of the private sector and its vulnerability to attack from terrorists as well as Mother Nature.  A lot of that talk has been serious and straightforward about the risks, vulnerabilities and consequences of such an attack regardless of its form.  Some of that talk though has been lip-service where the right words may be uttered but no action, funding or initiative is offered or executed to make those words have any true value.  Today’s hearing was not lip service.

Each of the witnesses from DHS, NYPD, FBI, Rand Corporation, InterContinental Hotels and NYU’s InterCEP delivered stark, sobering and pointed details about the deadly attacks in Mumbai and how those tragic events have rippled here in the US.  Each of the prepared statements offered a litany of details, but what was most impressive were the lengths that DHS, NYPD and the FBI have taken to reach out to commercial facilities such as hotels, resorts, large assembly areas and other infrastructures to share lessons learned about the Mumbai attacks — share information and get them “ready.”

For anyone out there that still thinks that our country’s hotels, shopping centers, arenas, theaters and other “soft targets” aren’t vulnerable, they need to be strapped into a chair and hear the opening statements of the first panel with DHS’ Acting Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection, James Snyder; NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly; and James McJunkin, the FBI’s Deputy Assistant Director for its Counterterrorism Division.  None of these guys or the people that serve around them needed a wake-up call prior to Mumbai and it’s obvious that their attention has not lapsed since then, either.   Kelly’s opening statement was probably the most gripping as he went step by step through the Mumbai attack and what the NYPD was doing overseas to monitor the attacks while responding domestically in his own jurisdiction to engage NYC hotels and other venues and keep them informed.

Kelly went as far to describe the Mumbai attacks as a “turning point” in terror tactics and was making sure his department all the way down to the precinct level beat cop was being educated on what to look out for should a similar attack be planned for NYC.  When he described the international network that the NYPD has deployed to examine the tactics, intelligence, impacts of events like Mumbai you couldn’t help but be stunned at the capacity the NYPD has built.  Many have referred to the NYPD as one of the world’s largest standing armies given its nearly 40,000 officers.  There is no doubt they have built one of the world’s largest intelligence networks to complement their “boots on the ground.”

Under questioning by Rep. Lungren (R-CA) as to how the NYPD’s international information network compared to and intersected with those operated by DHS, the FBI and others, Kelly was quick to point out that his network “complemented” and “was not in conflict” or “competition” with the others Lungren mentioned.  He went further to explain that as terrorists’ number one target, NYC and its police department had an inherent responsibility to establish such a global network to safeguard its citizens and city and its international and domestic reach and relationships did that on a daily basis.

When the second panel took over, Mr. Bonnell (Director of Global Security for Intercontinental Hotels) did something that few Congressional hearing witnesses have ever done — he praised DHS.  He specifically credited the efforts that DHS had done to build communications and relationships between the various hotel security directors and the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).  Those relationships were built prior to the Mumbai attacks and were engaged when the tragedy began to unfold at the end of November 2008.  As Mr. Bonnell described them, they proved to be of immediate and tremendous value when they were needed most.

Bonnell also explained that his hotel chain is now incorporating security needs into the design of its properties and looking to deploying new training to prepare its staff to deal with a range of events that might occur at their locations around the world.   Because of these efforts, he mentioned that his company was pursuing SAFETY Act protections and would also voluntarily apply for accreditation under the Title IX/PS-PREP program when it was formally underway.

As the panel’s final witness, Bill Raisch of NYU’s InterCEP used his testimony to push for DHS’ selection of standards under the Title-IX/PS-PREP Program.  While stressing that the time had come for DHS to make its picks for the voluntary preparedness standards for the PS-PREP Program, he strongly encouraged Congress to encourage DHS to explore some pilots but more importantly fund the program – something it has not done since the effort started in August 2007.

In offering those points, Raisch also said something else that hit home: he encouraged  Congress to include risk and resilience as part of the funding considerations for the huge infrastructure packages Congress is continuing to finance.  His phraseology of “We must prepare, while we repair” had me reaching for the air horn and face paint, wanting to start the wave and scream “AMEN!”  Since I was watching the hearing on my laptop in my office and the air horn and face paint were at home, Bill got a very loud, “HELL YEAH!” and wave of my Terrible Towel instead.  Great job Bill!

Every Congressional hearing is supposed to be a venue for learning and gaining new insights.  Too often they end up being show trials with finger waving and jockeying for media attention while little new knowledge is shared or communicated.  This was one of those rare occasions where learning and insight did occur and hats off to the Subcommittee, the witnesses and in particular the staffers who put this hearing together.  It chronicled the reasons why we need to stay awake to the threats at hand.  More importantly it showed the great progress we’ve made in private sector interaction and readiness but it also highlighted the tremendous amount of work we still have to do to make our private sector and country prepared for ever new variations of terrorist attacks.  There’s no time for sleep in getting that “To Do” list done.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More