Merck execs' bogeymen: Animal-rights, disease activists, plus laid-off workers

What keeps Merck's security staff up at night? Animal rights activists and laid-off workers, apparently. According to Federal Aviation Administration documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal, the drugmaker cited these worries in asking to be exempt from new rules--now changed--that would have opened up information about private aircraft movements.

Merck's ($MRK) letter was among almost 500 written to the FAA as companies sought to block information about their aircraft from public view. The agency had planned to allow commercial flight-tracking websites access to the flight plans of private planes, the WSJ reports. After all, these aircraft use the FAA's publicly funded air-traffic control system. The agency said plane owners could keep the information off live-tracking sites provided they wrote to the agency and cited a "valid security concern."

Oil companies and defense contractors were among the obvious applicants for privacy. But healthcare companies asked too, including the insurance company Humana, which cited controversy over healthcare reform as a security risk. Merck's concerns were more specific, according to the letter obtained by the WSJ.

Animal-rights activists and "disease-specific extreme activists" have targeted Merck's senior leadership, wrote Grant Ashley, VP of security for Merck Sharp & Dohme, the company subsidiary that operated 6 aircraft. The disease activists have threatened top executives and focused on the management in billboard ad campaigns. Groups have also distributed "mass mailings" of fliers emblazoned with executives' names and photos. "These activists have engaged in unpredictable and spontaneous incidents which pose a threat and danger to Merck Executive Leadership," Ashley wrote.

Executives have also been "vilified in the press" and "received numerous threats" because of layoffs and facility shutdowns worldwide. Top managers couldn't stop visiting Merck's far-flung locations, the letter noted, and sometimes, that travel involved stops in locations next door or close to facilities where people have been laid off and operations shuttered. If executives' travel plans were available ahead of time, that would "increase the risk of such threats or other violence being carried out," the letter stated.

To wrap things up, Ashley pointed out that Merck has a broad security program that provides "security trained drivers" for members of its executive team, as well as security measures at their offices and homes. And those are the very executives who travel on its aircraft for business reasons, the letter states. Asked to comment, a spokesperson told the WSJ that "the letter covers it fairly well."

Congress ended up intervening at the FAA, allowing private flight plans to be kept off real-time monitoring sites for any reason, not just for bona fide security threats. As the WSJ notes, more than 5,100 U.S.-registered aircraft have their flight info blocked from public view; that number had fallen below 700 before Congress stepped in.

- read the WSJ piece
- download the letters from the WSJ site