By Elizabeth Winter
Department of State employees that frequent the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington know to avoid the areas around the Dean Acheson and Loy Henderson Auditoriums in mid-November. Each year at that time, more than 1,000 security professionals pack the auditoriums and the surrounding hallways for the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) Annual Briefing, one of the Department’s largest annual events. The week is filled with keynote addresses, breakout sessions, a reception sponsored by the International Security Foundation, and the lifeblood of any conference: building valuable connections with colleagues. Dubbed “OSAC Week,” the annual briefing brings together security professionals from U.S. companies, NGOs, universities, and faith-based organizations with diplomatic security officers and other government officials to review the global security environment facing U.S. organizations.
Shortly after the 2019 OSAC Annual Briefing concluded, the 34 OSAC staff based in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security began planning for the 2020 event, which would also celebrate OSAC’s 35th anniversary. The COVID-19 pandemic upended those plans, and in July, OSAC decided to go virtual.
Going virtual allowed a record number of security professionals (nearly 2,000 attendees) from around the world to join in discussions on espionage, travel in the age of COVID-19, rising U.S.-China tensions, women in the security industry, and safety protocols in professional sports. Speakers included experts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Facebook, the National Basketball Association, and the intelligence community. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provided opening remarks.
OSAC Executive Director Jason Kight described the new virtual format as a flexible and innovative way to engage a diverse group amid an ongoing pandemic.
“At an in-person event, you either show up, or you miss out. This was a fantastic way to include members worldwide in all aspects of the briefing, giving them ownership to engage across chat tools and live discussion sessions, or just take in a sampling of on-demand presentations.”
The virtual platform offered a rare chance for all OSAC members to engage in a highly collaborative way, reflecting the public-private partnership of OSAC itself; they organized panels and served as moderators. Sector and regional committees created live and on-demand content on topics ranging from navigating international travel to surviving civil unrest. The faith-based sector committee interviewed hostage survivor Steve Dennis, and attendees were able to ask him about his harrowing experience in an intimate one-on-one setting.
The live and on-demand options meant that viewers could catch all the great presentations at their convenience. William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, spoke on the current state of cyber-enabled corporate espionage and how U.S. private-sector organizations should approach the threat of intellectual property (IP) theft in the months and years ahead. Inge Huijbrechts from Radisson Hotel Group reviewed programs to prevent the spread of coronavirus in guest lodging. The CDC’s Dr. Martin Cetron offered an in-depth assessment of global migration and how the United States is working to make travel safer. Bechtel Group CEO Brendan Bechtel shared insights on how corporate culture can make or break a company.
“My biggest takeaway from 2020 has been a profound appreciation of an organization’s culture in determining success in a crisis,” Bechtel said.
The topics of diversity and inclusion were also central to the briefing. A diversity panel offered the chance to hear from Ambassador Dereck Hogan, a prominent contributor to the “Diverse Diplomacy Leaders Speaker Series”; Angela Lewis, manager of the Global Intelligence and Threat Analysis Team at The Walt Disney Company; and Lucas Schleusener of “Out in National Security” that covers what kinds of initiatives have been working to empower diverse international security professionals. The Middle East and North Africa regional committee featured a panel on “Women in National Security,” underscoring the necessity of the female perspective in the security industry.
Participants also engaged in more than 60 small discussion groups—which created a great opportunity to build valuable new relationships and reconnect with old friends. During the “Natural Disaster Preparedness” session, two participants realized they had met more than 30 years ago, had lost touch, and were very happy to spark the connection back up after so many years.
OSAC also offered a moment to reflect and bond together through wellness sessions where participants confided in small groups about the toll of isolation and loss of freedoms that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to their lives. They learned new relaxation methods from speakers like Kedra Gant of Facebook, who shared her knowledge of literature, nutrition, mediation, and wellness regimens. OSAC staff, like Latin America and Caribbean Program Manager Alexandra Scott—a trained yoga instructor—guided viewers in stretches and breathing techniques that can bring calm in moments of chaos. It is common that individuals in the security profession are focused on the safety and well-being of others, so this session was particularly valuable to encourage them to take a moment for self-care.
The event concluded with an awards ceremony hosted by the International Security Foundation, highlighting the work of OSAC’s 150-plus country chapters and 13 common interest committees. Award-winners included the Dublin Country Chapter as the Chapter of the Year, and “Women in Security” as the Common Interest Committee of the Year. The Distinguished Achievement Awards went to Dinesh Elangovan of the Chennai Chapter and Fidelity Investments and Rebecca Gomez of the OSAC staff. At the ceremony, guest speaker William H. Webster, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, commended the achievements of OSAC members and staff and delivered sage advice on the value of honesty and integrity in public service.
OSAC is already looking ahead to next year’s briefing with great enthusiasm and will seek to incorporate the virtual platform again in a hybrid-format that, safety precautions permitting, will allow participants to connect with colleagues both in-person in Washington and virtually online.
Elizabeth Winter is the communications manager in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Overseas Security Advisory Council.