Standing before a group of intelligence analysts at U.S. Special Operations Command’s MacDill Air Force Base headquarters, Maia offered her analysis of what role special operations forces should take in the bloody two-year-old Syrian civil war.
It was late June, about two months before the White House called for military action against Syria for what it says is that nation’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, but the crisis had been going on for more than two years, with about 100,000 killed and a million refugees spilling into neighboring countries to escape the horrors. Though not as prolific as it is now, debate had been raging for years within government and military circles about what to do.
Maia argued against the use of U.S. special operations forces, instead pushing the matter off to the State Department.
“Any type of unilateral action would be perceived negatively in the Middle East,” she said.
Nervous, but confident, her biggest concern was condensing a lot of information into a short presentation.
Maia is not an intelligence operative or a member of any military service.
She is a 21-year-old student at the University of South Florida, one of about 30 young men and women — including a high school student — who spent a few days at Socom as part of a USF program aimed at obtaining a career in the intelligence field. Because such students run the risk of being targeted by foreign intelligence agencies, The Tampa Tribune has agreed to use pseudonyms.
The idea was to expose students to the intelligence process by having them make and present analysis about a real-life situation, says Walter Andrusyszyn, an adjunct professor in the College of Business who created and runs the program.
“I wanted to put them in there and have them feel the pressure, feel the uncertainty and still come to a conclusion,” says Andrusyszyn, who has served as the deputy permanent representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and shared responsibility in preparing President Barack Obama’s first visit to Europe. He has also served on the White House’s National Security Council and held various positions with the Department of State.
“The kids did a great job,” says Andrusyszyn. “Nobody in that group couldn’t do intelligence work for the U.S. government, and I don’t say that lightly.”
Students in Andrusyszyn’s program, which began in November 2011 with a two-year, $720,000 grant from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, have done some interesting things.
Last year, USF created a protected website, “then students broke into it,” he says.
“It showed them how easy it is,” says Andrusyszyn. “Cybersecurity is a big issue and it was damn easy.”
This year, in addition to the Socom seminar, students in the program traveled to Israel, to meet with security officials, business leaders and residents. And they are also taking part in a seminar on human trafficking.
One of the program’s main goals is to teach the students the underlying skills required for a career in intelligence.
“The first skill set is effective research,” says Andrusyszyn. “The second is to draw a conclusion and justify a conclusion. The third, which I find most important, is the ability to transmit that information in an oral briefing and written presentation. That is the program’s heavy emphasis.”
For the Syrian exercise with Socom, the students were broken into groups to find ways of preventing the spillover of violence into Lebanon. They were given the choice of three options to present to the Socom analysts, have special operations forces act unilaterally, work with Lebanese counterparts or hand the problem off to the State Department and let someone else take care of the problem.
Maia’s group chose the third option, which turns out to be a prescient choice given the current lack of public will for a U.S. military strike against Syria. Douglas, a local high school student, was chosen to make the case for his group, which also chose the third option.
“Going into the briefing, I was extremely nervous,” said Douglas, 17, who would like to pursue a career in the intelligence field. “I had never done anything like that in my life. It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my whole life.”
As Douglas talks about his experience, Andrusyszyn chimes in.
“That’s what I told them,” he says. “I wanted them to feel the pressure.”
Jonathan, also a 21-year-old USF student, was part of a group that chose having U.S. special operators work with their Lebanese counterparts. He says the experience of staking out a position, researching ways to defend it and making an oral case for it in front seasoned professionals was incomparable.
“I have more confidence in myself and speaking,” says Jonathan, who like the other students spent a good deal of time using open sources, like domestic and foreign media reports, to research the topic and find ways to defend his position.”
Socom officials say that the seminar was beneficial to the command as well.
“It was a chance for our military personnel to better connect with our civilian community on what we do as uniformed and civilian government employees ... how we serve our nation,” says Socom spokesman Ken McGraw. It was also an “opportunity for our more junior officers to refresh themselves on classic intelligence support to the military decision-making process. At our four-star level headquarters, the opportunities for our junior officers to refresh themselves and teach this process are limited, so this was actually a welcomed opportunity.”
And there was a mutual benefit as well, says McGraw.
The seminar was a “chance to take a look at ‘local talent’ who might be interested in getting hired as (Defense Intelligence Agency) or Socom intel analysts,” he says.
As for the choice of Syria for a case study, McGraw, in an email last month before news about the sarin attack in the Damascus suburb broke, says the vast amount of open-source information about a long-simmering conflict made it a natural choice.
“To craft an unclassified practical exercise on intelligence support to the military decision-making process (analyzing a situation and crafting options to solve national security problems) it is best to use a real-world example that has a wealth of unclassified materials already resident on the internet ... a ‘surrogate intelligence network’ for pulling relevant information to analyze the situation,” he wrote. “And today, this is no better practical example to pull from than Syria.”
There is another strong takeaway students got from hammering out intelligence analyses on Syria, says Andrusyszyn. It is a takeaway being debated in the Pentagon and Congress today.
There are consequences for taking sides, says Andrusyszyn.
History has many examples. Andrusyszyn pointed to the overthrow of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi as an example.
“Look what happened in Libya,” he says. “Gadhafi depended on black Africans to help him, but after he was deposed, the black Africans were rounded up and slaughtered in the streets. There are no easy answers.”