Speaker: COL Christopher Costa
About the Speaker:
Chris Costa is a former intelligence officer of 34 years, former Special Assistant to the President and current Executive Director of the International Spy Museum.
Recently, Mr. Costa served as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council (NSC). At the NSC, he was responsible for coordinating counterterrorism policy and strategy as well as US hostage recovery activities. Mr. Costa had 34 years of progressive national security experience and well-documented success in strategy policy, special operations, counterintelligence, and human intelligence, deploying on multiple contingencies, and to combat operations in the Republic of Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Mr. Costa’s most recent assignment was with the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as a Program Director in the Operations Directorate. Preceding USSOCOM, Mr. Costa served as a Department of the Navy civilian at the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and as a Senior Adjunct Instructor with Norwich University’s Bachelor of Science in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis Program; with Norwich University, he taught and mentored students on topics related to national security, strategy, and counterterrorism. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University; an M.A. in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College; and a B.A. from Norwich University. His military awards and decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, and two Bronze Stars.
In May 2013, Mr. Costa was inducted into USSOCOM’s Commando Hall of Honor for extraordinary and enduring service to Special Operations Forces. Mr. Costa joined the International Spy Museum as the Executive Director where he plays a leading role in building on its extraordinary success as a Washington destination and speaking responsibly on current counterterrorism and intelligence issues.
This lecture updated what we understand about the terrorism challenges at home and abroad in light of policy choices, a new National Counterterrorism Strategy, and international pressure on terrorist actors.
Recently sworn back into government service to provide senior consulting services to various departments, Mr. Costa gave his audience a fascinating overview of his vibrant experience at the National Security Council and the counter-terrorism policy and strategy employed, sharing anecdotes of the threats the nation faced at the time and action taken in response.
His goal for the talk was important:
“I want to talk about my experiences at the National Security Council – because those experiences are important to convey to the citizens we serve… And I do so with all humility, having worked with the entire intelligence community for so many years…”
Having come to the White House after a long and successful career, Mr. Costa shared that when he assumed his position, he knew it was a priority to remain well informed, ask the right questions, have a prepared team, and understand U.S. capabilities in dealing with the national security agenda.
He stressed his objective was to ensure continuity after President Trump’s inauguration:
“Counterterrorism isn’t generally, and should not be, politicized. It is the one almost pure discipline.”
He made sure to protect his team from any politicization, so they would be free to do their work. He staid unflappable – but was also “prepared to tell truth to power.” Nevertheless, Mr. Costa shared, he did have some red lines that, when crossed, would have made him resign. Yet, despite some tough days, he made it through the time of his detail.
From day one, he had four major issue areas to look into:
- How to conduct strategic operations/raids to counter threats from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
- Protecting the U.S. from persistent, significant, and potentially deadly threats to commercial aviation (which is not very well known).
- Accelerate the fight against ISIS.
- Hostage issues in Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of the world – a huge interagency effort.
Mr. Costa was the convening authority for the counterterrorism security group for policy issues, crises, and hostage issues. One of his main tasks in the NSC was to advise the President and senior members of the U.S. administration on counter-terrorism policy issues. NSC has weekly meetings on threat streams and provides advice on critical areas.
Demystifying the national security decision-making process, he emphasized that it really isn’t as complex as it might seem:
“At the end of the day, what it’s really about is being well informed by intelligence and producing options for the president – and that means convening meetings with the interagency…”
And in regards to countering foreign threats, Mr. Costa learned that the primary strategy that worked for the U.S. Government was not to deploy large-scale operations overseas and maintaining a large-scale presence in other countries but to work with foreign counterparts with small and strategic actions. Yet, kinetic pressure is important. He reminisced about how when he came to the White House, he wanted to work on “New Testament Counterterrorism Solutions”, e.g. terrorist rehabilitation programs, countering violent extremists, prison programs… However, they didn’t have the luxury for this type of approach in the first years of the Trump administration – because of the threat worldwide.
Mr. Costa’s biggest concerns regarding international terrorism now are the resurrection of ISIS and a reconstituted al-Qaeda – which is embedded in communities in Afghanistan. Lone-wolf actors also pose a constant threat. The incident in Charlottesville had made it clear how serious the domestic terrorist issues have become. And this is why, Mr. Costa asserted, sound counter-terrorism strategies and policies to act on the threats posed by both national – such as far-right, racially motivated, and white supremacist groups – and international terrorist groups are now part of the 2018 counterterrorism strategy.
During the Q&A session, several pertinent questions were raised. This includes the emerging threats from Islamic terrorism in South East Asia, especially in the Philippines, coordinated actions by U.S allies, potential cybersecurity threats including misinformation, new threats of Taliban and ISIS rivalry in Afghanistan, emerging threats of domestic terrorism, and how defunding police could affect maintaining law and order and the ability to counter domestic terrorism, etc. Acknowledging these as tremendous but challenging questions, Mr. Costa provided vivid and very candid answers.