That summer of 1937 all the enthusiasts of air flight were in Buffalo, NY. Most amazing was a wunderkind  barnstormer from Germany, Ernst Udet. He flew his twin winged aircraft magnificently. The grandstand audience cheered wildly with astonishment when he picked up a handkerchief with a wing of his civilian airplane as it whizzed by! He so impressed the crowd that no one asked why this German, whose nation was denied an air force by the post-World War 1 Versailles Treaty, ‘privately’ purchased two Curtiss Hawk ‘Hell Divers’. The world would learn some few years later. In 1939 the Junkers Corporation in Nazi Germany introduced the Stuka dive bomber, based on these American models. A Stuka, emitting a screaming howl, would go on to precision dive bomb Polish targets for Hitler’s Germany.

We all hold clearances, and for that reason are expected to protect our information, equipment, and processes. If asked, could you point to what guidance you go to in order to make sure you are doing the right thing? I’m referring here to how you go about selling your product. If your weapon system is for sale, what is actually for sale? The whole airplane, let’s say? Or is it an aircraft, or weapon system? Are all of the components for sale, or are some not to be released to a purchaser? So you take your weapon system to an air show, the better to show off its capabilities. True professionals surround the aircraft, photographing every conceivable angle, part, component, bulge, and concavity. Enthusiasts ask away about what they are seeing. Your employee, representing the company as a subject matter expert, does his best to field questions. He greets many a visitor, all of whom record and even photograph every single comment he makes, all his brochures, and especially any film of the aircraft in flight that he offers. What could possibly go wrong?

Who’s Your Audience?

Begin with the audience. Who are they? Most public air shows are just that. Anyone can attend who has the price of admission. We send our products out to be seen because we want to sell them. It is important to do so for the future of our jobs and company. A first question to ask then is what must I protect? Is the whole aircraft a secret? No, you’ve checked ahead of time and know that only an onboard component is. Where is that component? Who knows? Can it be inferred from some bulge in the width, say, or length of an unmarked part? Be assured that every single part of this aircraft will be measured, the better to identify where the ‘secret’ is. And of course, if you are protecting your product from a country…or a competitor, they will know what they are seeking. Their spy, or ‘competitive intelligence‘ operative, will have told them where it is.

What Can They See – and How Much Time Will They See It?

What can be shown? If you allow someone into the cockpit, will they have time to measure? Will they have the ability to extract a piece of the construction component? The Soviets used to send visitors to foreign factories with gummed shoes, the better to remove shards or microscopic components of construction metals from floors. Do you have a similar need to protect such parts? What are you doing about it?

What Will You Say?

What can be told? I’ve been to shows where a simple question sufficed to launch a representative into paroxysms of engineering lore. He told me everything about a component he’d ever known, or speculated on. He told me who his coworkers were, what they did and what they planned on doing. “Do you have any problems?” I asked. “Problems?!!” he’d cry. “Of course we had problems, and here’s how we fixed them…”. On and on he went, literally saving a real competitor loads of research money and time. Now a ‘bad guy’ knew not only what he should not do, where the pitfalls were, and how to avoid them, but ways ahead that worked or didn’t. Now the salesman/subject matter expert had another problem – only now he had no clue that he himself had just created it by not planning  ahead.

“Have you been briefed on what you can and can’t say about this component?” I’d inquire. “What? By who?” You see where the dangers are. Here was a genuine engineer, doubtless a master of his subject, and rightly proud of his accomplishments. He simply could not imagine, because he’d never been told what to protect, and what to expect during his time as representative for his company at their booth. I should add that examples of all the weapon system’s components were neatly laid out in front of the man, such that an inquiring mind could distract him, and lift one to take home. There were so many parts present it was impossible for him to notice what might go missing. Photos provided on the walls of the display booth were likewise unvetted. They alone were worth their weight in gold. Answers to a competitor’s questions could be easily determined from them.

What to Do Before You Send Your Employees to Speak?

What to do? Before anyone is sent out to stand as a representative at a booth or attend an event for the company, give him or her a thorough briefing. Let them know that others want his information, and ultimately his job. In fact, these spies want to compromise the information the United States needs to protect itself, which this representative is there to guard. That’s why he must have appropriate clearances. Not only must he be aware of this, but also, his briefing should advise who from competing companies is seeking to soak up his information.

For your representative’s  pre-briefing, be sure you have not only a counterintelligence professional present, but also a cleared subject matter expert. The former can describe collection methods, and the latter can describe what to protect. Did I mention that the representative must, must know what he is protecting? If not, he could imply the answer to a spy’s question innocently. This opens your pre-briefing to the required presence of the foreign disclosure officer. He needs to explain what can and can’t be revealed, even about non-classified information. He’d get that information not only from his own requirements, but the company operations security officer.

Conferences and shows can sell a project. Or they can sell them out. Know how to protect your company, its reputation, its future, and its people. You never know why an innocent barnstormer is asking about a diving airplane.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.