When a DuPont salesman was trapped in Ivory Coast after a coup attempt plunged the African nation into a civil war in 2002, the chemical company turned to the U.S. State Department for help.
Fortunate to have a working cell phone, the salesman called his boss in Europe, who put him in touch with the department's regional security officer in Abidjan. Company officials, meanwhile, contacted the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a federal panel of public- and private-sector officials that helps U.S. companies protect their interests and employees abroad.
With the help of State Department analysts, the council provided DuPont with up-to-the-minute information about events on the ground, and company officials were able to direct the salesman to the relative safety of a missionary compound. He remained there for two weeks until relief forces arrived to remove him and other Western citizens stranded by violence far from home.
It was the kind of incident that illustrates why officials from both the private and public sectors view the Overseas Security Advisory Council as an indispensable tool in the increasingly difficult quest to safeguard American lives and interests in some of the world's most dangerous outposts. Representatives of the council's member organizations gathered recently at the State Department's Harry S. Truman Building in Washington to mark the 20th anniversary of the public-private partnership.
"Had it not been for this organization," said Raymond A. Mislock Jr., DuPont's corporate security director, "we would have had an employee stuck there and it would have been very difficult to provide him any kind of guidance."
Secretary of State George P. Shultz created the council in 1985, saying regular exchanges of information between the government and U.S. businesses could help counteract a rise in terrorist strikes abroad. "When terrorist intimidation succeeds in changing our politics, when it forces businesses to close down overseas, we hand them a victory," Shultz said in a speech announcing the organization. "It shows that terrorism works, it emboldens those who resort to it and it encourages others to join their ranks."
The council began with 15 members, all of them large corporations. Since then it has grown to nearly 3,200 members encompassing a wide range of private organizations, including businesses big and small, schools such as Ohio State University, nongovernmental organizations such as CARE, and even the Mormon Church.
The program, part of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, has a full-time staff of 15 and an annual budget of about $1 million. Membership is free and open to any organization (although not to individuals). The public can view the council's Web site at www.osac.gov, but only members may receive daily e-mails tailored to the specific region in which they operate.
Nine security analysts undertake much of the research that goes into the e-mailed reports. The reports are descriptive rather than prescriptive, detailing conditions and security threats in a given region but not recommending evacuations or other specific actions.
When terrorists bombed the London subway system this year, the analysts quickly began gathering information, interviewing authorities on the ground and surveying member businesses to find out how they were protecting their people.
"Within four hours we had a PowerPoint presentation that we disseminated broadly to the private sector by e-mail, by posting it on our Web site," said Douglas A. Allison, the council's executive director. "And that presentation was used not only by the private sector inside the United States, it was used by all the country councils overseas, it was used by our embassies to brief people in other countries about what was going on in London. . . . It did not make recommendations. It gave the facts to people so that they could make their own risk management decisions within their own structure of their organization."
The council also helps build relationships between embassy officials and representatives of private U.S. organizations. Its 34-member governing board in Washington is supplemented by 106 country-level councils around the world.
The department's regional security officers "not only have a lot of on-the-street information, they also have a lot of diplomatic-type experience," said Mark J. Cheviron, corporate security director for agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. "It can be something as simple as the local customs, or things that our travelers need to know, someone we can get a hold of to help out with our travelers. That is very, very important to us."
The need for the council has never been greater, corporate officials said. Both the government and U.S. businesses confront an increase in anti-Americanism and terrorist threats abroad.
"The government has put a lot of effort and spent a lot of money in terms of hardening its targets," said Robert Moore, security director for Merck & Co. "So then those who want to target American interests look at what is commonly referred to as softer targets, and that can commonly be U.S. business interests -- whether it's our people, our facilities. So the information that we get and share is particularly valuable to us in the private sector in terms of trying to protect those assets as best we can."
The council helps protect against crime, too. Cheviron said his company and some of its competitors suffered a string of truck hijackings in South America not long ago. "People would put remote smoke bombs on the back of the trucks. And they would follow the truck, they would set it off," he said. "It would look like the truck was on fire. The drivers would all get out."
The company reported the scam to the council, which notified the department's regional security officer. That same day, the council updated its Web site with a warning for any U.S. company with trucks operating in the region -- including ADM's competitors.
Similarly, after a DuPont employee was kidnapped at the airport in Caracas, Venezuela, a few years ago, the company reported it to the council, which later produced a report on the dangers of that airport.
The corporate leaders on the council's governing board said their companies rely on other sources of information, including newspapers and television. But the council's trusted network is always a first stop when making decisions about their operations overseas.
"They are very good, and 20 years ago they didn't exist," Mislock said. "This organization grew over time. Like anything that's a good thing, you always want more of it. So we continue to put demands on the department to put more resources in. These young analysts are terrific."