A high-security communications network linking government leaders to some of technology's biggest names in the event of a national disaster will be unveiled early next month, officials say.
Inspired by the breakdown in communication on Sept. 11, when frantic calls overwhelmed phone lines, the so-called CEO Link will be used to shuttle high-priority news between government officials and executives.
"We would discuss recovery and response efforts first," said Ila Brown, director of Interagency Communications at the Office of Homeland Security.
The network, described as mostly phone-based with some Internet capabilities, is being built by AT&T and members of the Business Roundtable, a group of about 150 CEOs of major U.S. companies. The idea for the network arose after a meeting last November between about 40 members of the Business Roundtable and Office of Homeland Security director Tom Ridge.
Initially, only members of the Business Roundtable will have access to the network, but it will expand to more businesses and government agencies, according to spokesman John Schachter.
Details about the network were not available because of security concerns, according to Schachter and an AT&T representative.
"We don't want to turn ourselves into a target for attack or hacking," Schachter said.
But some people have questioned whether the network will improve emergency communication or if it's appropriate for big business to have a special hot line to government officials.
"The cynical view is, are they looking to try and get their noses into government funding or promote their own security interests?" said Charles Pena, senior defense policy analyst at Cato Institute, a nonprofit public policy research foundation. "What information do they need to exchange that wouldn't already be publicly known?"
But government officials and the Business Roundtable say the CEO Link will fill several practical needs such as keeping tabs on energy and telecommunication issues in an emergency.
"We saw a real breakdown in timely and accurate communication after Sept. 11," said Schachter, describing CEOs with private jets who didn't know whether or not they needed to take extra security precautions and government officials who were getting their news from CNN, not the sources.
On Sept. 11, "we didn't know if the private sector had been hit or was being targeted. There was such an aura of uncertainty," Brown said. "Eighty-five percent of U.S. critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector. That's a huge amount."
Cherilyn Foglio, government liaison officer for the Red Cross, said her organization already has adequate communication with the government, and business involvement can only help in times of crisis.
"CEOs of any corporation have always been very supportive of response operations," she said.