The Intelligence Factor

In a fragile world of rogue states, terrorism in the name of religion, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction, Lisa Walls Costa ’86 is tasked with helping keep America safe.

Lisa Walls Costa ’86 (Photo by Scott Cook) Lisa Walls Costa ’86 (Photo by Scott Cook)

From understanding terror calls to assuring global nuclear stability, Lisa Walls Costa ’86 could tell you some bone-chilling stories about her line of work. Then she’d have to kill you.

Well, not really. Besides, she’d never share national secrets in the first place.

As director of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Violent Extremism for the MITRE Corp.—a nonprofit organization that operates research and development centers sponsored by the federal government—Costa is privy to things that most of us can scarcely imagine. In Iron Man parlance, it’s akin to working at Stark Industries.

“If you look 20 years out,” Costa says, “it gets even crazier than the Iron Man suit.”

Futuristic military tech aside, Costa’s primary focus is a lot like Tony Stark’s—just without all the hype or cool gear. Both are tasked with protecting America’s way of life, especially from people who would like to wipe us off the map.

But how do you bring that up at a cocktail party or over a cup of coffee?

“I usually just say I’m a scientist and leave it at that, because it’s incredibly difficult to explain what I do,” says Costa, rather charming and upbeat for someone whose job carries such weight. “In layman’s terms, I advise the government on new ways of thinking about countering and combating terrorism and WMDs. My job, most of the time, is telling the government what they don’t want to hear—the unvarnished truth.”

Costa, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, recently won the Rollins’ 2016 Alumni Achievement Award in recognition of a career that spans more than 30 years in support of our nation’s most critical missions.

The daughter of a West Virginia coal miner who moved his family to Melbourne on Florida’s Space Coast and led welding crews for NASA’s Gemini missions, Costa dreamed of becoming an astronaut at an early age. Back in the early 1970s, however, women weren’t allowed in the space program, and they couldn’t become fighter pilots either.

If those rules ever changed, young Costa reasoned, then she’d need a background in computer science. So after graduating from high school, she worked the graveyard shift as a systems administrator at Harris Corp., earned a two-year degree from a community college, and enrolled at the University of Central Florida.

Holding down a full-time job and commuting to Orlando became difficult, so when Costa learned that Rollins had a Brevard County campus (which began at Patrick Air Force Base in 1951 and closed in 2004), “it was the answer to my prayers.”

She quickly transferred and earned a degree in mathematics and computer science. Costa went on to earn an MBA from Tampa College and a PhD in computer science from Cincinnati’s Union Institute & University.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be an intelligence analyst. I thank Rollins for the background they gave me in critical thinking,” she says, mentioning professors whose day jobs included high-profile positions at NASA, the Air Force base, and space-related companies. “They taught college because they were really interested in developing the next generation of scientists. They were so engaging in terms of making the information just come to life.”

Lisa Walls Costa ’86 (Photo by Scott Cook)
Lisa Walls Costa ’86 (Photo by Scott Cook)

Like many Americans, Costa’s life took a dramatic turn on September 11, 2001. At the time, she was stationed at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base as a chief scientist and intelligence analyst to combatant commands like the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Central Command (CENTCOM) as well as the Defense Intelligence Agency and Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps intelligence agencies.

Shortly after the attacks, her email was down. So she faxed a short letter to the commanding general at MacDill-based SOCOM offering her services, “no conditions asked.”

Costa got a phone call late that night, and she served the next nine years as chief scientist and intelligence analyst at SOCOM. Without giving away too many details, her contributions helped find a lot of bad guys in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

“After 9/11, I spent the next year pretty much sleeping there at SOCOM in a sleeping bag,” Costa says. Her husband did the same. “Thank God for my sisters and neighbors and people from church, because my youngest son, who was about 10 at the time, ended up staying in a lot of different places. That first year, we worked seven days a week, 17-hour days. The next two years was six days a week, 17-hour days.”

Today, life isn’t quite as hectic. But Costa still operates at a pace that would wear out people half her age. With so much going on in the world, there’s little time to rest.

Current problems occupying her time run the gamut from North Korean nuclear bluster and the ideological extremism posed by the Islamic State to nuclear deterrence capabilities in Crimea and shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

“Some people long for the good old days of the Cold War,” Costa chuckles. “Then, you knew your enemies intimately. Now, we have so many adversaries, and their intent is very difficult to gauge.”