What is security? During the Cold War, the answer seemed simple. If the Soviets tried to annihilate us, we’d annihilate the Soviets — and vice versa. The logic was straightforward, if a bit perverse: The way to ensure security was to make destruction mutually assured. And the way to add an extra layer of protection was to write lengthy treaties that the two sides signed in elaborate ceremonies.
But where the Cold War had high stakes and elementary rules, the Gray War has high stakes and bizarre rules. We’re less certain who “they” — and at times “we” — really are. The enemy is so dedicated that it is willing, even eager, to die. It is so loosely organized that it’s hard to know who should be at a negotiating table. We can’t use deterrence. We can’t use diplomacy. What do we do? Linda Millis has the beginnings of an answer. “National security,” she says, “is everybody’s business.”
Millis works for a Washington, DC nonprofit called Business Executives for National Security (BENS), one of a legion of think tanks and policy shops that form the capital’s motley shadow government. Usually, these groups occupy the nosebleed seats of political theater. But every so often, events conspire to thrust certain ones to center stage. In the past few months, that’s what has happened with BENS.
In the decade since the Cold War ended, BENS has been warning businesspeople and politicians about ominous new threats: cyberattacks, suitcase bombs, and bioterrorism. Few people listened. BENS founder and chairman Stanley Weiss traveled Europe and the United States giving speeches about anthrax and Osama bin Laden. In 1999. Few people cared. BENS argued that these new threats were the kind that business was in a unique position to repel, but that doing so would require a new type of cooperation between the public and the private sectors. The typical response: Ho-hum.
Then what was unthinkable to most, but inevitable to BENS, actually occurred. “Before September 11, we went around trying to get people’s attention,” says Millis, a former CIA analyst who is BENS’s vice president of new tools with the New Teams for New Threats division. “Now we have their attention.” And now, she and others say, is the time for all good businesspeople to come to the aid of their country.
Millis and her colleagues argue that security today won’t come from bigger bombs or faster planes. It won’t come exclusively from the government. And it won’t be absolute. Instead, Millis says, the best way to battle the bad guys is to “respond quickly to anything they do.” Adds Weiss: “You have to get ahead of them. You have to do all kinds of things that the government is not nearly as good at doing as people in business are.”
What is security?
It’s still hard to say. But in this new era, it will depend more than ever on — yes — fast companies.
Civilian War Games
One Tuesday in October, 20,000 people file into the San Jose Convention Center for Wescon, an engineering-design conference. The event is a huge success. But by Thursday evening, strange things begin to happen. A 47-year-old software engineer who had attended the conference goes to the emergency room of the San Jose Medical Center with a high fever, cough, and headache.
On Friday, local companies notice that an unusually large number of employees have called in sick. Then events turn grim. The 47-year-old engineer dies. Soon, emergency rooms throughout northern California are clogged with coughing, feverish patients.
Investigations begin. And the preliminary findings turn out to be too awful to fathom: It’s yersinia pestis — the plague. Law-enforcement officials trace the disease to the San Jose Convention Center, where they find canisters that are rigged with biological agents attached to the ventilation system. Black Death has invaded Silicon Valley.
How does the Valley respond? That’s what BENS wanted to know. In August — a month before the terrorist attacks — BENS invited officials from the Centers for Disease Control, the FBI, the State of California, Santa Clara County, and several Silicon Valley companies to walk through this bioterrorism scenario. The results were not heartening.
When those 35 people gathered in the conference center of BEA Systems, an e-commerce software company based in San Jose, they quickly realized that they had barely a clue about how to respond to a terror-induced pandemic. Indeed, when they took their seats around a horseshoe-shaped table, they discovered that most of the people tasked with coordinating such an effort didn’t even know one another. “The first part of the meeting, and one of the most useful exercises, was just exchanging business cards,” says BENS chief of staff Marcia Johnston, who ran the project.
The public-health officials discovered that Silicon Valley businesses were essential partners in responding to terror. “Companies have wonderful communications networks,” says Johnston. “They have warehouses. They have facilities that can be turned into clinics.” Overnight-delivery companies could rush medicine and supplies where they were needed. Trucking companies could haul products and people away from dangerous areas. Fast-food outlets might repurpose their drive-through windows as efficient places to distribute medicine. The experience also reinforced a broader point: When the battlefield extends to conference halls and cubicles, even civilians must participate in war games.
The Do Tank
Rich Hearney looks like the actor a casting agent would dispatch to play the part of a retired four-star general and former Stanford football star. Square jaw? Check. Commanding bearing? Check. Healthy, vigorous tan? Check. Gleaming black shoes? Check, check.
“We’re not a think tank,” barks Hearney. “We’re a do tank.” Hearney — that is, General Richard D. Hearney, USMC (Ret.) — is the president and CEO of BENS. He went from the playing fields of Stanford to the battlefields of Southeast Asia, rising in the ranks of the Marine Corps, earning a chestful of medals for his heroics, and, finally, winning the coveted four stars that appear on the uniforms of only a few-dozen officers in the U.S. military.
In 1997, Hearney served on the National Defense Panel, a congressionally mandated commission that issued a slick report titled Transforming Defense — National Security in the 21st Century. “It was greeted with a snappy salute and promptly put on the shelf,” Hearney says. “I will never participate in another blue-ribbon panel. Our attitude at BENS is, Let’s get something done.”
That pragmatic spirit derives in part from founder Weiss. After making millions mining manganese, Weiss started the group in 1982, guided by an amusing but unassailable principle: “Being dead is bad for business.” Corporate leaders joined the group to add their voices to the then-life-and-death tussles over nuclear policy.
Since then, BENS has become broadly respected, if not hugely influential. It prides itself on being different from the capital’s other report-generating, conference-holding, wonk-employing idea factories. BENS isn’t a waiting room for out-of-power politicians or academics on sabbatical. Its members don’t use it to try to land defense contracts or to lap at the trough of corporate welfare. It doesn’t contribute money to political campaigns.
Nor does BENS do any original research with its $4 million annual budget. Instead, it tries to enact the ideas of others. Chief of staff Johnston describes traditional think tanks as R&D — and BENS as sales and marketing. The group tries to enlist business leaders in the cause of national security — not to think great thoughts but, as Hearney says, to try to get things done.
For example, early last year, BENS organized a meeting of banking regulators and financial executives to exchange advice on how to follow the terrorist-money trail. The contacts made there led Citibank to cut its ties to a terrorist group that was doing business with the bank.
As the year unfolds, BENS will continue its work on new threats. “We have been the beneficiaries of a strong sense among businesses of wanting to give back,” says BENS vice president for strategic development Doug Wilson. “We will be both a channel and a template for building public-private partnerships.” BENS has led a delegation of executives to meet with Tom Ridge, director of the federal government’s new Homeland Security Office. The group will conduct more bioterrorism scenarios. And it will bring together similar groups — luring them across the boundary between the public and the private sectors — to explore cyberterrorism scenarios. “We are a catalyst in the true sense of the word,” says Millis, who once specialized in the Soviet bioweapons program for the National Security Agency. “We trigger reactions but don’t appear in the final product.”
War Is Business
The Cold War had its “wise men” — towering figures such as Averell Harriman and John McCloy, businessmen who whispered in the ears of power, made lofty pronouncements, and spun grand geopolitical theories that helped the country wage a titanic struggle with another superpower. That was then.
Today’s Gray War doesn’t need wise men but pragmatic people: women and men of action, who can get things done. The Gray War needs speed. It needs agility. It needs talent, leadership, lightning-fast communications, sophisticated finance, and efficient supply chains. In short, it needs business.
In less jittery days, business magazines like this one tossed around military metaphors: Business, we all said, was war. But today, such metaphors seem cheap, even silly. We now have a real enemy, not a metaphorical one. And if we stop and stare long enough, the enemy looks eerily familiar. It calls from cell phones, sends email updates from laptop computers, and recruits newcomers on the Internet. It relies on an intricate, international financial network, where money often crosses borders as blips of light rather than as bags of cash. And its leader has rejected old-school, top-down management for the speed and flexibility of a flattened hierarchy, preferring to articulate a broad vision and let others execute the grim details.
Maybe we had it backwards. Maybe business isn’t war. Instead, in this freaky new world, maybe war is business.
Daniel H. Pink (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company contributing editor. Learn more about BENS on the Web (www.bens.org).