StratCom on Campus: The Global Innovation and Strategy Center at UNO

By Tim Rinne, State Coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace
Originally published at NebraskansforPeace.org
September 21, 2007

It's a windowless, bunker-like structure enclosed by a fence, and nobody will say for certain what goes on there. But on the grounds of the University of Nebraska-Omaha sits the first facility ever built on an academic campus for StratCom's own exclusive use.

In existence since October 2005, the "Global Innovation and Strategy Center" (GISC) formally opened the doors of its University of Nebraska headquarters in August 2006. News accounts typically describe the center as a 'think tank,' though the GISC's director, retired Air Force officer Kevin Williams, dislikes the label as too limiting. The center, Williams says, is charged with doing more than simply generating 'ideas' - it presents direct courses of action StratCom can take. He prefers to think of the GISC as a "learning lab" for developing new strategies and tools to assist StratCom in performing its missions.

And what exactly does all that mean?

Sorry, but that's "classified."

Despite being on the campus of a publicly funded Land Grant institution dedicated (in theory, at least) to the principles of learning and the open exchange of ideas and information, what we know about the GISC is sketchy at best. Whatever minimal knowledge we do have derives mainly from the quick peek granted to the media at the ribbon-cutting opening the center in September 2006.

Under its hardened exterior lies a 13,228-square-meter, multiple-story underground facility, whose gleaming high-tech office space and secured teleconference areas are wired directly into Omaha's fiber-optic network. Located just east of the Scott Technology Center at 6825 Pine Street, the GISC is also in close proximity to the "Peter Kiewit Institute," which has been officially designated as a "Center of Excellence" by the National Security Agency (the StratCom Component Command most famous for having instituted the controversial "warrantless wiretap" program).

StratCom officials say they deliberately sought a college setting for the GISC in order to lure 'outside the box' thinkers, who might ordinarily be reluctant to spend time on a military base. Drawing from industry, government and academia as well as its own StratCom ranks, the center has an on-site workforce of under 60 people. The number of actual "in-house staff," Williams explains, was intentionally kept small to enhance speed and agility. Utilizing the center's state-of-the-art computer networks and telecommunications links, the GISC staff connect with other corporate and academic experts from around the globe in so-called "virtual teams." These teams, once commissioned with a task, operate on a tight time frame, Williams says - of no more than four months.

Speed and agility are prized qualities for the command charged with waging the White House's "War on Terror" and thwarting a terrorist attack before it takes place. The creation of the Global Innovation and Strategy Center, accordingly, is the direct outgrowth of StratCom's new missions of "Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance," "Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction," "Integrated Missile Defense" and "Prompt Global Strike." As Williams says of the center's purpose, "In general terms, we're trying to find ways to move faster than our adversaries."

Involving the corporate, government and academic communities, StratCom Commander James Cartwright said at the GISC dedication a year ago, "is critical to be able to come up with solutions that will outwit any perceived adversary that we have." And, as Williams is quick to note, the terrorist adversaries the U.S. faces today do not operate in traditional ways. Rather than merely attacking military targets, he says, they seek vulnerable non-military ones. The World Trade Center provides a prime case in point.

That our economy and way of life might themselves be at risk tends to explain the unprecedented role played by state government and the private sector in establishing the GISC headquarters on the UNO campus. Their collaboration in this public/private venture has added a whole new dimension to the notion of the 'military-industrial complex.' For instance, the structure the GISC is housed in doesn't even belong to StratCom. Omaha's private sector raised $47 million for the facility's construction. State government threw in another $23 million. And legally, the building is the property of the University of Nebraska system. According to a Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce spokesperson, the GISC constitutes a great example of the partnership between the public and private sectors in Omaha and shows the "very strong corporate commitment" toward StratCom. UNO's chancellor, John Christensen, was just as ebullient. Not only is the center not out of place on the school's Ak-Sar-Ben campus, he told the Omaha World-Herald - it's part of the metropolitan university's mission to engage with institutions in Omaha. StratCom and the GISC "is a sizable and important part of that community."

Okay. But does anybody on the outside know what actually goes on in that bunker-like building?

The director, Williams, refused to "even begin to detail the work being done in the center" when asked by a World-Herald reporter at the dedication ceremony. The former Air Force pilot, whose career included postings at the Air Force Space Command and the U.S. Space Command (now StratCom Component Commands), did concede in an article distributed at the Strategic Space and Defense 2006 Conference that "his experience in space can help him keep a strong focus on space issues at the center as needed." But the only concrete example he was willing to publicly discuss dealt with Avian Flu.

Back when the threat of an Avian Flu outbreak was dominating the headlines, a GISC partnership group, which in this case included officials from Nebraska's local and state governments, put together models that could help predict whether the flu virus was approaching Nebraska, and a plan for quick distribution of vaccines, Williams said. The GISC bounced during the process off officials from other state governments, and shared its plans with them once they were finished, he said. The planning developed to counter the avian flu also could likely be applied to dealing with a chemical or biological weapon attack on the United States, Williams said. (Space News, October 9, 2006, p. A2)

Who can argue with planning to address the public health dangers of a flu epidemic?

But knowing as we now do that StratCom was directed by Vice President Cheney to devise a plan for a preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear facilities (an attack that, by the way, would be utterly illegal under international law), why am I thinking that the GISC isn't just worrying about flu epidemics and focusing on disaster planning?

[UT Watch note: This comes from an article appearing in the August 1, 2005 edition of The American Conservative: "The Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, has tasked the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with drawing up a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States. The plan includes a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons." See full article]

Why am I getting this sneaking feeling that StratCom planners (at the behest of rogue administration in Washington) are also busily at work plotting some illegal air- and sea-based strike, given StratCom's new offensive authority to preemptively 'shoot first, and ask questions later' if it merely suspects - suspects, mind you - that America's national interests are being threatened?

And that's the whole problem with the retooled StratCom's new mission array. It's so secretive and can move at such a fast clip (it's authorized to attack any place in the world within an hour) that nobody - not even Congress - really knows from one moment to the next what it's up to - legal or illegal. Right this minute, on orders from the White House, StratCom could be starting the next war, and Congress wouldn't even have a clue.

According to the news reports, Williams was planning to begin an intern program at the GISC for select college seniors at UNO, allegedly to stimulate thinking and bring ideas to the table that even seasoned military officials might not have thought of. For a lot of 21-year-old students, in awe of all that high-tech gadgetry and StratCom's growing power, the prestige of an internship at the GISC would be a pretty cool thing to have on your resume.

But for those students (and faculty) on the UNO campus who can peer past all the gadgetry and public relations hype - not to mention the Pentagon pork that's flowing into Omaha to support it all - to focus on the menace StratCom now represents to world peace and international rule of law, there's at least one silver lining. They no longer need to drive all the way out to Bellevue to protest at Offutt Air Force Base. As firmly entrenched as StratCom now is on the UNO campus, they can just stop by on their way to class.