The continuing threat of terrorism has given the U.S. security industry a boost, as new companies emerge to provide technology and training to keep people and businesses safe. The homeland security business is booming in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but analyst Jack Riley of the Rand Corporation estimates annual U.S. government spending on homeland security totals at least $40 billion, and private spending probably equals that. "And then there are the investments that state and local governments and other entities might be making as well, so we're probably talking about a total value of activity that's at least near $100 billion," he said.
The business journal Forbes counts more than 30,000 companies that contract with the U.S. government for homeland security. They range from firms that provide guards for public facilities to those that do high tech surveillance.
Aaron Cohen, managing director of IMS Counter-Terror School, is part of that growing industry. The California native joined the Israeli Defense Forces at age 18, and trained in counter-terrorism. He returned to Los Angeles to start a security company, and was soon attracting celebrity clients that included Jackie Chan. Three years ago, he brought some colleagues from his former Israeli unit to Los Angeles and opened a counter-terrorism school.
They offer training to police departments, defense contractors, military reservists, and security personnel for airports and transit agencies. He recently gave instruction at a nuclear power plant in Michigan. He says he tries to convey the lessons he learned in Israel. "What we bring to them really is a combat doctrine, or a philosophy, a certain mindset, which you can only get after having dealt with a specific type of threat, terrorism being the one that we come from," he said.
Cohen teaches techniques that he says every Israeli police officer knows. His course in tactical operations shows first-responders how to pursue a suspect through a crowd. "We're teaching them how to run through 30, 40, 50 targets that are innocents and looking for one threat. We're teaching them how to look for suspicious people, how to read body language, how to question people, how to coordinate security using undercover operatives as well as uniformed police officers at major events," he said.
The security specialist says U.S. airports and seaports are all potential targets, but with planning and proper procedures, the risks can be reduced to an acceptable level. "You've got trained personnel and manpower to be able to run and operate the system. You've got system testing to make sure that it's functional. And this applies to every security system, whether its locks and bars and alarms systems or air marshals, properly trained screeners who know how to do a light interrogation to undercover security deployed at a terminal watching the check-in," he said.
Lieutenant John Sullivan, a counter-terrorism expert for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, says private security forces have always been important in the United States. Public police agencies were only created in the 1840s and '50s.
He says Americans are again looking to private security for protection. "During the last 20 or 30 years, there has been a significant growth in private security to augment public police. Most of that has been directed toward property protection, response to burglar alarms, response to bank robberies," he said.
He says private firms now dominate areas such as computer security, and that their role in other fields is growing.
Some security contracts involve huge amounts of money. Private defense firms are now competing for a contract worth two billion dollars to create a surveillance system for U.S. borders. A multi-billion dollar high-tech system called U.S. Visit, which records biometric data from U.S. visitors, is also being expanded. Since 2004, the system has recorded the fingerprints and stored the photographs of some 40 million visitors to the country.
Analyst Jack Riley says terrorism is likely to be a long-term problem, and private industry will be part of the response. "As long as that threat is out there, and I think we have to be realistic and assume that we're looking at a generational threat in the form of this kind of terrorism, then consequently the industry is going to be there and it's going to continue to evolve and shape itself to help confront the threat," he said.
He says as potential attackers devise new approaches, public and private security must be adaptable and responsive.