Question authority
Bringing CEOs into the loop on security.

(FORTUNE Magazine) - Frances Fragos Townsend Assistant to the President for homeland security and counterterrorism

The still-murky allegations over government collection of customer phone records have brought at least one thing into crystal-clear focus: the central role of major corporations in homeland security.

Inside the White House, Frances Fragos Townsend has emerged as the key point of contact with CEOs who agree to share security concerns and help ascertain threats. FORTUNE's Nina J. Easton sat down with the ex-prosecutor and former U.S. Coast Guard intelligence commandant inside her basement West Wing office to discuss her sources of information, the gripes she gets from executives about how the administration is protecting America, and her participation in the Business Roundtable's Com Link - a round-the-clock communications network that can connect CEOs in an emergency.

The question of whether phone companies turned over customer records to the government has raised privacy concerns. Where's the line between security and privacy?

People's concerns about the issue are perfectly understandable. I will tell you my experience has been that corporate America shares those concerns and takes privacy very seriously.

On potential terrorist attacks, do you have a group of CEOs you regularly consult ?

I do. The federal government can't always be the fastest to a particular place or a particular crisis. The private sector has an incredible logistics system that we just don't have, which may mean that the private sector is better able to move things into place if there's a terrorist attack, and the best thing we can do is facilitate it.

How does information sharing work when a company--Disney, for example, in the case of its theme parks--might be a target?

I have a very good relationship with Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney (Research). I've learned to appreciate better the impact on business if we go public without working with them first. We're not always very good at that.

Are there briefings for business leaders?

Homeland Security does send notices to the oil sector, the telecom sector, the financial sector. The CEOs I've spoken to don't feel as if they get enough or get it soon enough. So it's a work in progress.

Do you hear about terrorist threats from CEOs?

My experience is that that usually goes to the local FBI level.

How does Com Link work?

After Katrina, offers of assistance came in, and CEOs were frustrated. They wanted to help, but they couldn't get direction. Com Link is a private telephone network of several hundred CEOs. Bob Nardelli of Home Depot (Research) invited me to participate. It is something I could use in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. Top of page