Roberta J. Duffy
Conference attendees were treated to a rare and exceptional treat at the Monday keynote luncheon. Robert M. Gates, former director of the CIA was on hand to share some of his experiences and give his insights to the nation's ongoing challenge to battle terrorism. Though he began his program on a light note - commenting that he came from Washington, D.C., "the land where those who travel the high road of humility encounter little heavy traffic" - his address quickly became serious as he discussed the events of September 11, the first foreign-based attacks on the continental United States since 1812.
Gates said that although it's common for people to ask, "how could we let this happen?," what many don't realize is how often intelligence information has been used to thwart other horrible crimes. He cited several instances where plans from terrorists were realized and halted throughout the 1990s, including:
However, there will be hearings this summer in Congress to ascertain the CIA's intelligence and role in regard to September 11th. Gates suspects that there are many contributing factors that could have affected the CIA's intelligence operations.
For example, there have been no budget increases for the agency in the past 15 years. Also, many programs have been cut that place undercover agents in key positions to operate effectively. Furthermore, while recent administrations have often addressed human rights' issues in foreign lands, resources have not been dedicated to the intelligence-gathering that is necessary in those areas. Finally, both political parties in recent administrations have not had a focus on homeland defense, failing to optimize the resources of agencies like the FAA, the INS, the CIA, the FBI, or the CDC.
The creation last fall of the Office of Homeland Security is a good step, according to Gates, but he points out that it may take some time before it is truly effective, given that it was established before its real strategy could be established. The bureaucracy and politics that is Washington is taking its toll as this office strives to establish its path.
To complicate matters further, the threat of terrorism that this country faces is vastly different than other types of terrorist threats it's faced in the past. For one, this movement is not sponsored by a particular government, so the spirit of the terrorists is more entrepreneurial. Not only are we a target because the terrorists want to destroy all Western governments, but we are going after governments that harbor terrorists and oftentimes, the terrorists want to destroy those governments, too. Also, because the terrorists' groups objectives are fueled by religious fanaticism, their methods and thinking are revolutionary. Finally, the weaponry of today's wars is more dangerous and complex than in year's past.
Gates said that despite the perceived notion, doing business around the world might not be significantly more risky than it was before September 11th. In fact, it might be safer because at this point, many fear the United States' retaliation power and because "the United States is at war and we're in a bad mood."
After his keynote address, Gates spoke to a group of executives at an invite-only breakout session and answered questions. When asked what leaders within various companies could do, from a business standpoint, to aid the country's war against terrorism, he said that he could see benefits resulting from leaders in industry and government agencies joining to create solutions and security measures. For example, those in the food industry could apply their knowledge of their supply chains to identify possible areas of threat and communicate those possibilities to the relative agencies, like the FDA. The same process would work for those in the logistics industry - they would meet with trade associations and agencies that govern the highways and such. Gates says that too often, government agencies are viewed as a policing force, when they could be the conduit for transforming industry expertise into precautionary measures.
When asked point-blank where he believes the next real terrorism threat lies, Gates said, "I think that they will try to strike in the area that we're not thinking of. We have to be creative if we're going to stay a step ahead. If Tom Clancy could envision an airplane being used as a weapon, we should be able to think of that, too."
Gates is the author of the book From the Shadows and followed his keynote address with a book signing. Last week, he was named as the sole finalist for the position of President of Texas A&M University.
By Roberta J. Duffy, editor of Inside Supply Management™