By: Brian Wickizer, Reporter
This spring, SSP students will convene the third session of the National Security Critical Issues Task Force (NSCITF). Students in the NSCITF course work as a team to produce an actionable report on an issue of high-level government and policy interest; their work will be published in the Georgetown Security Studies Review and briefed to senior government officials at the end of the semester. NSCITF is partnering with the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center for the spring session to address the topic of countering a digital caliphate operating in the virtual realm, an issue that senior State Department officials have identified as critical.
The two previous NSCITF groups produced reports on lone wolf terrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE). The latter report attracted the attention of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). At DHS’ request, the students met with a group of DHS officials to brief their findings and discuss strategies for more effective approaches to CVE. The course meets over four Saturdays and three Friday evenings this spring and requires committed students to conduct independent research and actively engage policymakers and subject-matter experts to drive actionable findings.
The course will be led by Professors Carol “Rollie” Flynn and Dr. Jeffrey Connor. Professor Flynn is a 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, where she held senior executive positions including Director of the CIA’s Leadership Academy, Associate Deputy Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Director of the Office of Foreign Intelligence Relationships, Executive Director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, and Chief of Station in major posts in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Professor Flynn is the founder and managing principal of Singa Consulting. In addition to teaching at SSP, Professor Flynn is a visiting faculty member at the Fordham University Graduate School of Business.
Dr. Jeffrey Connor provides organizational and individual consultation for senior leaders in a variety of organizations including the US Intelligence Community, for whom he has written a number of internal case studies and helped design and deliver executive education programs. He has delivered programs on leadership in over twenty countries for a wide range of US government and foreign national participants. For twenty years, Dr. Connor was the CEO of a large professional service organization, and for over twenty-five years, he was a lecturer on organizational behavior at the Harvard Medical School. He has previously been on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University where he co-taught a seminar on organizational diagnosis.
The GSSR caught up with Professors Flynn and Connor to discuss this spring’s NSCITF course.
The topic for this spring’s NSCITF course is preventing a digital caliphate. Can you discuss how this topic was chosen and what students will be investigating?
Connor: One of the goals we have had for the Task Force is to connect students interested in real world policy issues with organizations that are interested in those topics too. We have a group of graduate students focus on a topic that is critically important in a time-compressed schedule because that is how they will likely be working when they join the law enforcement, defense, and intelligence communities. The State Department approached us because they were interested in partnering with talented students and we chose this topic from among a few options they outlined for us.
Flynn: The State Department is interested in collaborative research with SSP students to examine the nature of the target audience that could be susceptible to the messaging from a digital caliphate and to develop effective counter-messaging strategies. The SSP students will also be researching how new developments in technology are relevant to these issues.
Connor: We already see in the New York Times today that, for the first time in a long while, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is out with a new public statement. ISIS is losing its hold on Mosul, on Northern Iraq. Al-Baghdadi had been pretty silent, but now he has reemerged.
Flynn: As ISIS loses actual territory, there is speculation that they will rely more heavily on the digital realm to propagate their message, attract new recruits, and conduct operations. The State Department wants a better understanding of the consequences of this development. The class isn’t only focused on ISIS, however. State was explicit in telling us that they want our SSP students to be looking at other actors as well. We see ourselves as a force multiplier for the State Department by bringing in smart minds to help them think through this complex and urgent issue.
Connor: We see this as truly a mutually beneficial relationship because our students get a lot out of this project as well. Our students will meet people from the State Department and will have the opportunity to brief senior people from around Washington. It’s a great opportunity to network and get somebody’s business card. Students will complete the course with a published document with their name on it that will get pretty wide exposure. We had a professor from UCLA pick up on the Countering Violent Extremism report almost immediately after it was published in the GSSR and contacted us about it. People in the field are really reading and monitoring what our SSP students are writing. This isn’t just free labor for the State Department, it’s a great learning opportunity and a great networking opportunity.
What about the NSCITF specifically prepares students for the professional world in the national and international security field?
Flynn: A key goal of the class is for students to learn how to write for policymakers. That means writing with academic rigor, but writing in a very accessible way, with the bottom line up front. Also, students will get experience briefing the report they produce. Writing for senior leaders and providing cogent briefings are real world skills that students will need no matter where they go, in government, consulting, or elsewhere. These are critical skills.
Also, we have found that our students really like having a publication on their resume. It is something concrete they can point to during a job interview.
Connor: Many of our colleagues ask candidates that they interview about a time when the candidate worked as part of a team. Our students can immediately go to their experience in this course to answer that question. It’s a great conversation piece to bring to your interviews.
This is the third time you two will be teaching the NSCITF class. What have you changed about the course since you began teaching it?
Flynn: One of the big changes we made since the first time we taught the class is that we have extended the length of the class. The first time we taught the class we met over five consecutive weeks and it was too much work, too quickly.
Connor: It used to be that by the time we got to the third class, we had only been meeting as a group for two weeks. We want our students to go out and interview people working in the national security, policy, and law enforcement communities and that was very difficult for the students to do in such a tight period of time. It’s almost impossible to get on somebody’s calendar, interview them, and write up the interview in two weeks. So, by extending the class we hope our students will be more able to conduct interviews that will be part of the final report.
View the NSCITF Reports here:
NSCITF Report on Countering Violent Extremism