Giuliani: Ignorance of Terror Isn't Bliss

You're safer in knowing about the peril, says New York's former mayor, even if it makes people much more nervous

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was entering his final days in office when the city was attacked by terrorists on September 11. The experience changed him forever, and made him a national symbol of someone who helped the city and the country stand up and respond to what had happened.

Although he has been mentioned as a possible national political candidate, he remains in the private sector for now, helping client companies best prepare a defense against future attacks. His company, Giuliani Partners, advises on everything from crisis management and data security to promoting technologies that help detect and contain the effects of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive devices (see BW Online, 8/5/04, "Security: What Companies Need to Do").

He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Associate Editor Diane Brady about the latest talk of terrorist threats. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: When the news came out on Aug. 1, revealing five sites in Washington, New York, and Newark as possible terrorist targets, how did you react?

A:

I reacted as I have very often over the past two or three years, with a sense that we're much safer now, because we're realistically dealing with the world. We're finding out about things and publicizing them. Although it's disconcerting to hear that al-Qaeda may have plans to attack us, it's much better than where we used to be -- where we weren't finding out about those plans and we weren't alerting everyone to be more prepared. It may seem counterintuitive, but when I hear things like this, it feels like our government is moving in the right direction.

Q: So you believe it's comforting that we're onto their plans?

A:

The most dangerous situation is where you're facing peril but you're not aware of it. You're safer in knowing about the peril and dealing with it, even if it makes people much more nervous.

Q: Does this latest warning change anything?

A:

It shouldn't change anything. The plan for the September 11 attack went back three or four years and maybe even longer. Just because this information went back two years doesn't make it [irrelevant]. Given the length of time they take to prepare an attack, and the discipline they've shown in going about it, that would be within the period of time to be concerned about.

Q: Do you think companies in New York City are prepared for a possible attack, in so far as you can be prepared?

A:

Both with regard to the government and private companies, they're doing a lot more than in other parts of the country. That's probably because we were attacked, plus we're on every one of these lists of prime targets. You have to have had your head in the sand not to be doing anything about it, if you're responsible for large numbers of people.

The building I'm in has much more security than prior to September 11, and our company keeps reviewing our plans. We're probably typical of what's going on here. There are always exceptions, but the percentage of companies doing more is higher than in other parts of the country.

Q: What are some areas of security that companies ignore?

A:

There's an attitude of either not wanting to face the realities or not wanting to spend money on facing the realities. For people in companies that have significant numbers of employees, to do the things needed to bring their security [to the] state of the art 2004 requires a certain amount of investment.

There are companies that have the foresight to do it, and there are companies that still worry about the bottom line. They keep betting that it's not going to happen. They see it as a cost against the bottom line. Other companies take a different view: No. 1, it protects our people; No. 2, it protects our business; and No. 3, all the money we put in makes us more efficient.

The other thing that helped in New York was facing the blackout last year. You realize you're facing dangers to your business, not just from terrorism but from natural disasters, blackouts, and things like that. The second thing that has much more awareness is the need for business continuity. The best example of this was the stock exchange before September 11. In my experience as mayor, the New York Stock Exchange had one of the best security plans and one of the best business-continuity plans of any organization in New York City. And that's one of the reasons why the stock exchange, although right at the epicenter of the attack, was able to get back in a few days. They're a good model of what business should be doing now.

Q: Given the expense involved and the fact that the targets named keep coming up in Manhattan, do you worry this will become a less attractive place to do business?

A:

In a way, New York has become even more attractive as a very exciting place to do business. New York has become legendary in its ability to deal with things and overcome them. New York may be one of the prime targets, along with Washington, but it's also seen as one of the best prepared places. If something happens, the damage will be minimized.

I remember, a couple of years ago, we had this terrible situation with a serial attacker and murderer. One woman who was attacked by this guy but survived said she felt safer in Manhattan, because when she started fighting the attacker off, there were a lot of people around to respond. That's sort of symbolic.

Yes, this is a prime target. But there's a lot more awareness here, a lot more preparation. There's a police department of 38,000 that are the best trained in the country, and they're doing more than any place else to find about things in advance. On one side, there's the sense you're a target. On the other, there's a lot more being done.

Q: But we're not getting the lion's share of homeland security funds.

A:

We should. I think that the recommendation of the September 11 Commission that funding should be reallocated based upon honest, objective risk assessment is one of their most important recommendations. It reminds me of the way I approached the problem of crime and how to distribute police officers. You don't just distribute police officers on a geographic basis. You distribute them based on need. Where do you need them the most to reduce crime? One of the major changes we made was to have a ComStat system that evaluated crime statistically, and then we followed that system in distributing our police officers. And it brought about a 60% to 70% reduction in crime. The same thing is true with terrorism. Terrorism resources should be distributed based on a realistic assessment of where we need those resources.

Q: What are people coming to Giuliani Partners for right now?

A:

They're asking for a lot of things but, relevant to what you're talking about, they're asking us to do evaluations of their security -- to make certain they're aware of the new dangers they are facing. Do their security plans embrace all the things that need to be done? Do they understand how to evacuate a building?

A lot of the answers in the past couple of days have been on physical attacks -- the idea of bombings. What about biological and chemical attacks? Are their air-conditioning systems secure? Do they have a business continuity plan? And what are they doing about IT security? We get a lot of requests about that.

Q: A number of people are heading out of town during the Republican Convention and some have talked about curbing nonessential travel. Is that a wise move?

A:

I would encourage people to be here. I think it's going to be great. But the reality is, the same thing happened in Boston. People there described it as a ghost town except for the delegates. I remember, in 1992, when we had the Democratic Convention here in New York, people expected tremendous traffic jams. But they found the city more empty than usual.

In part, the selection of the date of the convention was done so that the city would be somewhat more empty than usual to accommodate the delegates. That week happens to be one of the times when Manhattan is the emptiest. That's peak vacation time. In the last week of August, you can get around this city in a very different way than usual. The population of Manhattan can change by a million and a half people.

Q: The Statue of Liberty has just opened to visitors again. Is that an important symbolic gesture?

A:

Absolutely. I think it should have opened a long time ago, but I'm glad it has opened now.

Q: As we come up on the third anniversary of 9/11, do you worry that we might become complacent again?

A:

I don't see that as a current risk in New York. The attack is too fresh in our memory. All of us knew too many people who were killed. For those of us who lived through it, I don't see us ever becoming complacent again. That's a little bit more of a risk in the rest of the country. The further away you get from September 11, people start to assume it could never happen again. Everything points in the direction that it will happen again.

Q: Since leaving the mayor's job, you've made this your life -- thinking about how to handle dirty bombs, secure information systems, prepare for disaster. Do you sometimes find it tough to focus on these worst-case scenarios, after what you've lived through?

A:

I actually find it helpful. Everybody's different. Part of the way that I deal with having lived through all that is by not running away from it. The more I can talk about it, the more I can get it out, the better it is for me. In a way, by doing things like this, it makes me feel like we're turning something bad into something good.

We had a terrible attack. Anything that we can learn from it to prevent another one is positive. It also makes me feel we're living up, to some extent, to the legacy of all those people who died so bravely. I wouldn't want to think that they all died -- particularly all those people who were saving other people -- and we didn't learn anything.

Q: How do you think people should be acting at this point?

A:

The first day of the attack, on September 11, I said to the people of New York that I wanted them to become stronger as a result of this, so [the terrorists] can't have a psychological victory over us. And New Yorkers have exceeded my expectations. They are very strong. They are very resilient.

At the same time, they are very realistic. There's a great risk of a further terrorist attack on our country. There's relatively little risk for any single individual. Therefore, it should not affect your life. It's a new risk we're now facing. I was in Israel last year, doing a program on the thing that kills the largest number of Israelis. You know what that is? Reckless driving.

New Yorkers face a much greater risk of reckless driving. We don't stop driving. We don't stop walking. That's how we have to deal with terrorism. It's a risk that we face. We have to do a lot more about it. But, at the same time, it shouldn't inhibit us from doing the things we have to do.

Q: It certainly hasn't affected real estate prices.

A:

I love how, after September 11, so many people came to New York -- as a sign to the terrorists that they can't inhibit us. That's what I hear New Yorkers say: "Sure, I understand what's going on. But we're not going to let these people stop us from living our lives."

Edited by Beth Belton

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