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Business Rumblings in Time of War

Policy: Bush team tries to balance the needs of its corporate allies and the needs of the nation in the fight on terrorism. They can come in conflict.

September 04, 2002|VICKI KEMPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Like good friends embarrassed by a rare disagreement, the Bush administration and the business community cannot say enough about how much the other has done to promote homeland security and what a good working relationship they share. Behind the positive spin, however, the White House is scrambling to address the concerns of its corporate political allies without compromising anti-terrorism measures that it has portrayed as essential to preventing another catastrophic attack.

While careful to wrap its resistance in patriotism, corporate America insists that the front line must not interfere with its bottom line.

Intensive screening of vehicles and drivers at border checkpoints, designating hospitals to treat bioterrorism epidemics and searching containers at ports of entry are all well and good, business representatives say, but let's not get carried away.

Randy Johnson, vice president for labor and immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, described security-related shipping delays as barely tolerable.

"Any more is going to kill us," he said.

Gaining momentum as the Sept. 11 anniversary approaches, the surprising resistance from some in the business community threatens to interfere with the administration's message of an America more secure and more efficient than a year ago.

"This can be a win-win situation, good for the country and helpful for business," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security.

Asked about the effect on business of post-Sept. 11 policies that require intensive searches of shipping containers and 18-wheelers at ports and border crossings, Johndroe said early problems have been corrected.

"We have to strike a balance between the security we need and the free flow of legitimate goods and people," he said. "We will be moving cargo faster than on Sept. 11 and we'll know more about it."

On the ground, however, business owners and port operators see time-consuming security measures that delay the delivery of parts to automobile and other assembly plants, slowing operations and lengthening the time it takes for products to get to market.

Operators of some U.S. ports worry that frustrated shippers will take their business to Canada.

"If they think they can get through more quickly, they might go to Vancouver," said Michael Wasem, communications director for the Port of Tacoma, Wash.

Business groups also are worried about upfront costs.

Conducting vulnerability assessments, erecting fences, cameras and other physical barriers, training for worst-case scenarios, hiring additional guards, buying doubles of essential equipment, and running background checks on employees are just some of the things the government says businesses must do to help prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

"Some things can be pretty costly," said Stephen Jordan, executive director of the chamber's Center for Corporate Citizenship. New security procedures must not interfere with companies' needs to "still pay the bills and make a little money," he said.

Everyone agrees that public-private cooperation is vital for the protection of the country's critical infrastructure--water and power utilities, transportation, banking and telecommunication--because roughly 85% of these essential services are privately owned.

Who pays for what is another question.

Government agencies have worked closely with some industries, especially to beef up computer system security. And in some key areas, such as water utilities, Congress and the Bush administration have agreed to subsidize private security enhancements.

Hospitals, which would be among the first responders to a bioterrorism attack, have received $125 million in preparedness grants. But they are unhappy with the level of funding and the strings attached to it.

"The funding so far is just a modest first investment," said Roslyne Schulman, senior associate director for policy development at the American Hospital Assn. "We're pushing for sustained federal funding."

To qualify for the grants, hospitals were required to submit plans spelling out what they would do to prepare to receive and treat a surge of as many as 500 critically ill and infectious people in a short period.

Some have been less willing to be designated as their community's primary facility for smallpox patients or other victims of a bioterrorist-spawned epidemic.

Dr. Richard Levinson, associate executive director of the American Public Health Assn., acknowledged the "apprehension" of some hospital administrators that their facility "would end up being a giant isolation ward."

But a smallpox or other bioterrorism attack could infect millions of people, he said, so the need is very real for hospitals where the staff is trained and prepared to treat them.

"None of them relish the role, but it's a role that has to be played," he said. "Hospitals are going to have to step up to the plate."

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