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Focus on National Security

Computer screen with American flg and coding language overlayed on it.

 [Photo: iStock | SMEDEREVAC]


THE WORLD HAS CHANGED DRAMATICALLY since the Cold War ended 30 years ago. From the end of World War II until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was just one primary threat to the United States’ national security. As Mohsen Milani, founding executive director of USF’s Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies and professor of politics, says, “The world was divided into good vs. evil, East vs. West, communism vs. capitalism.”

In recent years, multiple nations have developed a variety of capabilities that threaten U.S. national security, including cyberattacks designed to undermine our democracy and cripple infrastructure, the theft of intellectual property and growing nuclear arsenals.

At the same time, USF has been increasing its focus on national security in order to better prepare students for related careers, broaden the community’s knowledge and play a role in national policy discussions and debates. Central to the university’s efforts has been the formation of partnerships with key organizations and agencies, including the Florida Center for Cyber Security — Cyber Florida — and U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Cyber knows no boundaries

From left, Mike McConnell, executive director of Cyber Florida, and Ron Sanders, ’73,  staff director at Cyber Florida.

From left, Mike McConnell, executive director of Cyber Florida, and Ron Sanders, ’73,  staff director at Cyber Florida.

REMEMBER THE MASSIVE DATA BREACH at a major U.S. retailer during the 2013 holiday shopping season? Perhaps you were among the millions whose names, credit and debit card numbers and other sensitive data were compromised.

As far as Mike McConnell is concerned, that was a watershed moment in terms of awareness of cybersecurity.

“That breach compromised the personal data of one-third of the American people,” says McConnell, the executive director of the Florida Center for Cybersecurity — also known as Cyber Florida. “People started to pay attention.”

It is the major incidents — the ones that cause large-scale disruptions — that we hear about. The cyberattack against Colonial Pipeline in May, in which the attackers took control of the company’s computer systems and demanded a multi-million-dollar ransom — which was paid – was just the most recent and high-profile example of the vulnerability of the nation’s infrastructure. In 2020, hackers attacked the SolarWinds Corp., used by many government agencies and large corporations in managing their information technology.

“SolarWinds was significant, but that kind of activity, attacking the supply chain by inserting malware, is a normal technique by nation-states for a variety of purposes,” McConnell says. “More often than not, it’s to get information, but it also gives them the ability to inflict damage through remote control of computer systems.”

Cyber Florida’s staff director, Ron Sanders ’73, Life Member, uses the analogy of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

“That happens every day,” he says. “We only hear about the most dramatic cases. It’s the ones you don’t hear about that are the most worrisome.”

McConnell, Sanders and the Cyber Florida team focus on educating students at all levels and the general public on cyber threats, on helping to create a pipeline for careers in cybersecurity and influencing national policy discussions to help the United States better prepare for, and respond to, cyberattacks.

Created by the Florida Legislature in 2014 to serve the 12 public universities that are part of the State University System of Florida, Cyber Florida is housed at USF. The organization’s efforts continue to evolve in an era of ever-increasing cyber threats.

Both McConnell and Sanders bring extensive experience to their roles with Cyber Florida.

McConnell’s 50-year career has focused on international and foreign intelligence. A retired vice admiral, McConnell served as the director of the National Security Agency under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton from 1992 to 1996.

In 2007, President George W. Bush appointed McConnell as the second Director of National Intelligence, also serving as a member of the White House National Security Council for two years under Bush and President Barack Obama.

Sanders, who earned a bachelor’s degree in management from USF, has served as deputy director of personnel for the U.S. Air Force, director of civilian personnel for the Defense Department, associate director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and he spent five years as associate director of national intelligence for the federal government. From 2017 to 2020, he served as director and clinical professor in USF’s School of Public Affairs.

Both men also have held positions with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

A two-day conference in April underscored the seriousness of the cyber threat facing the United States. Meeting virtually, a high-profile group of U.S. military commanders, elected officials and current and former members of the intelligence community offered their insights into the growing threats to U.S. cybersecurity and the need for a multifaceted response.

“Cybersecurity: The Fifth Domain” was the theme of the Great Powers Competition Conference, hosted jointly by Cyber Florida, USF and the U.S. Department of Defense Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies. The conference was the third in the Great Power Competition Conference Series, which was created by USF in partnership with NESA and U.S. Central Command. The semi-annual events provide military and civilian policymakers and thought leaders the opportunity to learn more about various national security challenges posed by rival countries.

“One of the things that we and U.S. Central Command have concluded is that cyber knows no national boundaries, no international boundaries,” Sanders says. “This is everybody’s challenge. It’s important that we are participating in the national cyber debate. The conference was the most visible version of that, but on a daily basis, we are attempting to influence national level policymakers under the auspices of Cyber Florida.”

Adds McConnell: “We understand what the Russians are doing with elections and with breaches such as SolarWinds, and we understand what the Chinese are doing with our intellectual property. And both sides of the political aisle understand that we have to make some important decisions about how to enhance the cyber resilience of our nation. It is important to make the case that we need to change the rules about how we classify and share information with the public, how we look into the domestic infrastructure for malware. These are hard questions, but this is a debate we have to have.”

McConnell and Sanders emphasize that enhancing cybersecurity awareness needs to start at a young age. Among Cyber Florida’s initiatives Is Operation K-12, a joint project with the Florida Center for Instructional Technology at USF to bring cybersecurity education into the state’s K-12 classrooms.

Sanders believes the program has much broader applications.

“What we may build for Florida’s educators and scholars can be repurposed for educators and scholars across the United States and potentially internationally,” he says. “This is a positive sum game. It is estimated that there are half a million cybersecurity job vacancies, but I believe that’s understated. The fun part of being with Cyber Florida is that we can have direct influence on the pipeline, not just graduate and undergraduate degrees, but also in K-12, helping to influence kids as they make college and career choices.”

In addition to the college and career pipeline, Sanders and McConnell also focus on enhancing awareness of cyber threats in our everyday lives. Elections serve as prime examples.

“If you go back to the 2016 presidential election, the 2018 mid-terms, the most recent presidential election, we’ve found that too many of our citizens, particularly younger ones, take the internet for granted and believe everything they read,” Sanders says. “We’ve concluded that kids need to be taught how to be good cyber citizens in 21st century America, that they need to be able to discern what’s misinformation and disinformation. Unless we teach kids to be more discerning, they’ll be too easily influenced, especially by foreign actors.”

The nationwide shortage of people qualified for cybersecurity jobs isn’t just in the private sector. McConnell notes that two of every three such jobs in the federal government go unfilled.

“If we want to address this problem over time, we have to start in the secondary schools,” he says. “Think about your secondary school education — reading, writing, arithmetic. Did anybody teach you about digital vulnerabilities, about digital dependence? This will teach students to be more aware and protect themselves, and we’re hoping that significantly increases pathways for youngsters to flow into cybersecurity education at the university level.”

Part of the problem is that too often, prospective employers apply a narrow definition of what constitutes sufficient preparation for cybersecurity careers.

Noting his background in the intelligence community and at the Department of Defense, Sanders adds, “We always struggled with closing that talent gap. At Cyber Florida, we don’t teach courses, but we can guide the State University System to develop more courses and offer more degrees. We’re doing that at USF. We want to close the talent gap and eventually be able to better compete on the world stage.”

USF, for example, now offers three bachelor’s degrees and five master’s degrees in cybersecurity-related fields.

“Our experiences have shown us that you don’t fill cybersecurity vacancies just with people who have ‘cyber’ on the diploma,” Sanders says. “It’s computer science engineering, intelligence studies, digital forensics.”

Their educational efforts extend well beyond the traditional classroom. Working with the Muma College of Business, Cyber Florida has piloted a number of courses designed for C-suite executives and corporate boards of directors.

“This isn’t just a chief information officer problem, it isn’t just about ones and zeroes,” Sanders says. “CEOs and their staffs need to be cyber-aware and we have a series of initiatives to make them sensitive to the fact that they need to protect their networks.”

Sanders, McConnell and their team also reach out to local government officials.

“Last year, we reached almost 400 local government executives to scare them straight about cybersecurity,” Sanders says. “In Florida, ransomware is rampant, particularly at the local government level. Many of the breaches occur because of human error, not because of technical deficiencies. Creating a cybersecurity culture becomes paramount.”

Ongoing educational efforts are key, as is filling the talent gap. The problem, Sanders says, is the expectations of public and private employers.

“Governments and businesses are all looking for cyber-ninjas with five to 10 years of experience,” he says. “They aren’t there. Take the people coming out of the pipeline and teach them, train them, mold them.”

Managing a multi-polar world

Mohsen Milani (right) participates in a 2016 panel discussion at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Pictured to Milani’s right is Nabih Fahmi, former Egyptian minister of foreign affairs; seated next to Fahmi is Eliot Cohen, former counselor in the U.S. State Department and current dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University

Mohsen Milani (right) participates in a 2016 panel discussion at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Pictured to Milani’s right is Nabih Fahmi, former Egyptian minister of foreign affairs; seated next to Fahmi is Eliot Cohen, former counselor in the U.S. State Department and current dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. [Photo: Courtesy Mohsen Milani]

AS DANGEROUS AND NERVE-WRACKING as the Cold War could be at times, the world was far easier to navigate for the framers of United States foreign policy.

“Say what you will about the Cold War, there was a logic about the way people were thinking,” says Mohsen Milani, founding executive director of USF’s Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies and professor of politics. “The world was divided into good vs. evil, East vs. West, communism vs. capitalism.”

Much has changed in the 30 years since the end of the Cold War.

“The U.S. doesn’t have as much influence in the world economy as it used to, and how the U.S. manages this is very important,” Milani says. “Now we have multi-polarity as opposed to the bipolarity of the Cold War. The U.S. is dominant, but China is rising. Russia is challenging, and if you look at different regions, Brazil has become a formidable power in Latin America and Iran is a major challenge in the Middle East. How the U.S. manages this multi-polar world is a key issue, and the U.S. has not developed a clear answer so far.”

Exploring these and other foreign policy challenges has been the focus of the center since its creation in 2013. It has collaborated on a number of one- and two-day conferences for students and the community with, among others, the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. In addition to hosting conversations with current and former key players in the national security arena, Milani is frequently interviewed by major media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, the BBC and NPR.

The center, Milani says, serves as a bridge between the academic community, the business community and government.

“The rationale behind all of this is that a university is unique,” he says. “It’s much better than a think tank, which usually follows a certain ideological line, and there are limits on what government officials can say. But a university is a free marketplace of ideas, and we felt this center could become a hub for discussing issues related to U.S. national security that can educate the university community and others.”

As far as the chief threats to global security, Milani agrees with the assessment of the National Intelligence Council’s recent “Global Trends” report: China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

“With China, the threat is very clear — it’s economic,” Milani says. “But, China also is a rising military power. A high-ranking member of the Chinese government recently said, ‘The U.S. can’t look at us from a position of strength anymore.’ In other words, China is beginning to show its muscle. The 21st century will be a struggle between China as a rising global power and the U.S. as an established global power.”

While Russia presents primarily a military challenge, President Vladimir Putin is intent not only on creating polarization in the U.S., but also damaging U.S. relations with other countries.

“America is the top economic and military power in the world, and these are two pillars of U.S. power,” Milani says. “The third pillar is the incredible network of alliances the U.S. established after World War II with the Europeans and others. That’s something Putin is most interested in undermining, as he also seeks to shake our faith in American democracy.”

Unlike China, Milani says, Russia is not “a very advanced economic powerhouse.” But it does have an extensive nuclear arsenal, a formidable military force and a long history of establishing connections to proxies and their friends.

The threat from North Korea is nuclear.

“Can America persuade them to give up on their nuclear program in exchange for a normalization of relations and recognition of their leadership?” Milani says. “That’s closely linked to China because no country exerts as much influence on North Korea as China does.”

When it comes to Iran, the U.S. is confronting multiple issues.

“Can the U.S. revive the nuclear deal so there can be 24/7 inspections of their nuclear installations and facilities?” he notes. “It is in the American national interest to revive the nuclear deal that President Obama signed; it’s always better to know what they’re doing. Did the U.S. get everything it wanted? Did Iran get all it wanted? No, it was a deal based on give and take: The U.S. lifted sanctions and Iran agreed to an intrusive inspection and monitoring of its nuclear activities. It was not a perfect deal, but it was the best deal the two countries could strike at the time.”

Iran also has a significant ballistic missile capability, which Milani describes as “one of the most advanced in the Middle East.” And he is concerned that Iran has become a formidable player in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

“They have established a network of militias and proxies that are loyal to and supported by Iran,” Milani says. “The potential nuclear deal will address one issue. If the two countries can reach agreement there, then there’s a chance the U.S. and Iran can talk about other outstanding issues, such as Iran’s missile program and its regional activities”

Milani believes the U.S. needs to develop a long-range strategic plan for foreign policy.

“Where does America want to be, say, in 2070, and how to get there?” he says.

“Policymakers need to establish a bipartisan consensus about long-term goals of American foreign policy. This would give sense of purpose and cohesion to American foreign policy. This does not mean we can predict what the world looks like in 50 years. It simply means we must develop a broad road map about where we would prefer to be decades from now. As the circumstances change, as they inevitably will, we can and must change our direction. As long as you know the destination, it’s OK to change direction because we know where we ultimately are going. Right now, I don’t think there’s a consensus on where we want to go”

The dangers of Russian disinformation

Golfo Alexopoulos, director of the Institute on Russia and professor of interdisciplinary global studies sitting at a computer

Golfo Alexopoulos, director of the Institute on Russia and professor of interdisciplinary global studies. [Photo: Ryan Noone, USF News]

GOLFO ALEXOPOULOS MINCES NO WORDS when it comes to the threat that Russian President Vladimir Putin poses to the United States, globally and to his own citizens.

The director of the Institute on Russia at USF and a professor of interdisciplinary global studies, Alexopoulos has been studying the country since her college days. She earned her master’s degree in Russian studies from Yale and a doctorate in Russian history at the University of Chicago, and she visited the then-Soviet Union three times in the late 1980s during the height of the Cold War. Alexopoulos joined USF in 1996.

She believes the U.S. needs to be “very sober” about the Russian threat.

“It’s important for Americans to recognize that Russia emerged following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which was a brutal totalitarian state,” she says. “When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there wasn’t a reckoning with the Stalinist past or the repressive police state. Many people in the Soviet security services still held certain views about the U.S. as an existential threat and mortal enemy, about Russia being a besieged fortress and the victim of foreign machinations.”

That is the system in which Putin grew up and he maintains that mentality.

“He wants to undermine Western democratic institutions,” Alexopoulos says. “He’s opposed to the Western rules-based order, he wants to advance another concept of global authoritarian power and we need to take that very seriously. His regime is getting even more repressive internally and cracking down hard on the democratic opposition.”

Nor do Putin and his government care what the West thinks.

“I do worry about that,” she says. “Putin’s concern is shoring up domestic support and continuing his aggression abroad. This guy has been in power for over 20 years. He changed Russia’s constitution to stay in power indefinitely even as his approval ratings are declining. I don’t see him losing power right away necessarily, but I do think that as soon as he unleashes violence against his citizens — and I think that’s inevitable given the persistence and bravery of the opposition — that will turn more Russian citizens against him. I worry about Russia’s domestic stability in the short term; the way Putin behaves illustrates his own fears about domestic instability.”

That behavior includes Russia’s well-documented disinformation campaigns. Putin’s earliest online disinformation campaigns were directed at domestic targets, specifically Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Russian disinformation today has numerous targets, domestic and foreign.

Earlier this year, the Institute on Russia partnered with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to help strengthen understanding of Russian disinformation and its dangerous impact around the world. Alexopoulos is working with the J3-International Division of SOCOM, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, to educate USF students about Russian disinformation and to better position them for careers in related fields.

She collaborated with the J3-International Division to secure a grant to support these educational efforts, including a four-part virtual “Forum on Russian, European and U.S. Security” (REUSS). The REUSS Forum, held in February, featured panelists with expertise in cybersecurity, politics and international studies, data science, intelligence and related fields.

Alexopoulos enjoys working with the J-3 International Division at SOCOM. “They represent America’s partners abroad. People from dozens of countries come to SOCOM on short-term assignment to learn about special operations and to build relationships,” she says. “Many of them are from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia who are directly impacted by Russian activities. I have invited some of them to speak to my classes, too.”

The grant also supports a rekindling of the Sister Cities initiative that dates to the early 1990s between St. Petersburg, Florida, and St. Petersburg, Russia. The program includes collaboration between USF and the Higher School of Economics, a public research university with campuses in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

“Putin can be intensely anti-American, as is his entourage,” Alexopoulos says. “They propagate anti-American messages again and again on state-run media, yet polls of ordinary Russians show their view of the West is positive. They want better relations with the U.S. On a human level, Americans are fascinated by Russians and vice versa. That’s where cooperation and improved understanding will happen, on the student to student, faculty to faculty, citizen to citizen level.”

Institute pursues solutions

ROBERT BISHOP LIKES TO SAY that USF is now “a space-faring university.”

The dean of the College of Engineering also is president and CEO of the USF Institute of Applied Engineering (IAE), which developed three small communications satellites — each the size of a sandwich — that have been orbiting the Earth since January.

“Our goal is to contribute to the well-being of our citizens by developing systems for sea, land, air and space,” Bishop says.

The satellite project is one example of the work of the institute, which was created in 2018.

“We wanted to establish an organization that would take engineering education and research to a new level, where the problems we tackle in our research are real-world with customers and milestones and deadlines and budgets,” Bishop says. “Our focus is on applied engineering rather than basic research.”

He also notes the distinction between the IAE and engineering research centers at other universities.

“The institute is a one-of-a-kind organization in Florida focused on government and industry contracts,” Bishop says. “Given our proximity to MacDill Air Force Base, it really made sense to create this bridge. We’re better able to fill the talent pipeline for the government and industry. I think everything is encapsulated in our motto, which makes us different: Seeking truth at high velocity. We are searching for solutions, but we are searching for them on a short time scale, which is not common in more traditional engineering research institutions.”

Last year, the institute and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, entered into a five-year, $85 million contract that paves the way for researchers and students to collaborate with SOCOM to help solve significant challenges facing the nation.

Bishop refers to the agreement as “an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract.”

“Over the next five years, we can be tasked to do a variety of projects for SOCOM,” he says. “Our core competencies and our proximity are very appealing to them. We have a number of task orders already with the command.”

SOCOM may look to the institute to address issues in fields such as autonomous systems, human performance, transportation, cybersecurity, data analytics and sensor technologies. Students may have opportunities to gain real-world experience through internships at MacDill Air Force Base.

Starting this summer, the IAE is collaborating with multiple institutions to conduct research into the effects of low-level blast exposure on members of the Special Operations Forces. Partners on the three-year study include SOCOM, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City, the University of Washington and Harvard University.

The IAE also has created a consortium to facilitate engagement between academic institutions and SOCOM. According to Tim Baxter, the IAE’s executive director of programs and customer engagements, the consortium creates opportunities for SOCOM to share problem areas and for the institutions to respond with relevant research.

There is a workforce development component as well. SOCOM provides challenges that the consortium members can incorporate into projects for graduate and undergraduate students.

The IAE has invited all 12 public universities in the State University System of Florida to participate, and agreements are in place with more than half of the institutions. Other members of the consortium include Auburn University, Clemson University, Colorado State University, the University of Colorado, East Carolina University, North Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina.

Teaching security

Headshot of Karla Mastracchio

Karla Mastracchio [Photo: Courtesy Karla Mastracchio]

Karla Mastracchio, political science and communication ’03, Life Member, is passionate about teaching in a university classroom. Her students, however, don’t fit a traditional profile.

The South Tampa native works in national security and Special Operations as the professor of information advantage and strategic influence, teaching members of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) — such as Navy SEALS and Army Rangers — at Joint Special Operations University (JSOU).

JSOU’s main campus is in Florida, but she works out of the Indo-Pacific region supporting special operations efforts in that area of the world. She has been part of the SOF community for about 10 years and has been working with Joint Special Operations University for the past three years.

“One of the SOF Truths is humans are more important than hardware,” Mastracchio says. “You can have the best weapons and software or whatever, but if you don’t have the right people, it won’t work. JSOU offers SOF-specific education that helps SOF professionals solve real-world problems. What is asked of special operations, what kind of problems we are asked to solve, are very challenging and very rewarding.”

Mastracchio’s students include government civilians as well as active-duty military who are part of the SOF enterprise.

After earning her bachelor’s degree from USF, Mastracchio earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa. Her time at USF, she says, “shaped my ability to understand complex communication theories and frameworks and to succeed in highly competitive environments.”

She also benefited from her membership in the Alpha Delta Pi sorority, which has had a chapter on the Tampa campus for more than 60 years. She is an international officer with the organization.

“It really has shaped my leadership style and gave me high expectations for mentoring others and giving back,” she says. “Most of the women I went to school with are highly accomplished professionals but also are dedicated to service and I think we owe a lot to Alpha Delta Pi in that regard.”