The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
4 - Lisa Monaco: Dr. Doom
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to the Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg and I am honored to be your host for a series of compelling conversations with fascinating people from the world of public service. All my guests share one thing. They took an oath mandated by Congress to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. My guest today is Lisa Monaco. Lisa has had a remarkable career in public service. She has worked in all three branches of the federal government. She was a federal prosecutor, an assistant United States attorney, she worked at the FBI as chief of staff to Bob Mueller, she worked on the staff of Attorney General Janet Reno, and in 2013, Lisa became the homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama. In that role, Lisa was responsible for combating multiple threats from terrorism and cyber-attacks, to pandemics. Lisa now teaches at NYU Law School with a focus on national security, law, and policy. Lisa Monaco, welcome to the Oath.
Lisa Monaco: Great to be here.
Rosenberg: So, I was going to list all the jobs that you held in public service.
Monaco: Please don’t.
Rosenberg: Well, I don’t think we have time. You had a remarkable career.
Monaco: I’ve been very, very lucky.
Rosenberg: You know I feel the same way. I feel incredibly privileged to have done some of the things that I did. Now you went to Harvard College and then–
Monaco: – I did.
Rosenberg: –later to the University of Chicago for law school. But when you were at Harvard, were you thinking that you wanted to go to law school, that you wanted to be a prosecutor. Now how does that happen?
Monaco: I had a kind of a strange experience in college which is to say that as time went on, I became more and more of a student. So usually, you think freshman year, you’re, you’re working hard and by senior year, you’re, you’re ready to go.
Rosenberg: I’m guessing you had to be something of a student to go to Harvard.
Monaco: Yes, again, fortunate, again I was I went there after going to school and in Boston. But by the time I was a senior in college, I was working on a thesis on American history and literature and actually wrote my thesis on a novel by Zora Neale Hurston, who was an African-American woman writer in the Harlem Renaissance. And I got really into the whole project and I loved doing it. And so, I graduated thinking I’m going to go to graduate school and beer English professor. That was kind of short lived because I think I realized I probably wasn’t going to be able to get a job living anywhere I wanted to live as an English professor, but that’s how I left school and moved with a group of friends to have a series of jobs in Washington D.C. while I contemplated applying to graduate programs.
Rosenberg: And where did you go from there?
Monaco: One of the jobs I had was working on the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which at the time was chaired by Senator Joe Biden from Delaware. I mean, I had the lowest level job you can imagine. I think I was I was in charge of the staff which I think was one other person of drafting the form letters that respond to people who write in to the committee about various issues. But what that job did was it exposed me to a set of issues at the time the committee was working on the crime bill, was working on the Violence Against Women Act, processed several nominations notably the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, and a host of others. So, I really had a front row seat very, very young and very early in my life as that and yet developed career to see these issues.
Rosenberg: So, if it makes you feel better my first job out of college was working for the person who authorized the form letters for a member of Congress. So, I was a level beneath you.
Monaco: Yeah. Well you could, you could’ve come work for me, Chuck
Rosenberg: Yeah, I would. I would do that in a heartbeat. When did you figure out then that law school made sense and that you wanted to work in the world of justice?
Monaco: So, it was this job on the Judiciary Committee I think that first gave me the law and policy bug. And by that, I mean I saw what you could do with a law degree that was different than what I had previously thought. I thought, you know, lawyers good work and law firms and that’s all fine, but I didn’t know that there was a whole set of other jobs that you could do that I was seeing every day. The lawyers on the committee staff who I was working with, who of course I thought were old and wizened at the time because they were all of like 35 or something, and I saw the jobs they were doing, and it seemed really, really interesting. They were working, like I said, on things like the Violence Against Women Act, and so I saw what you could do with a law degree and that gave me kind of the bug.
Rosenberg: Did any of them turn out to be mentors?
Monaco: They did. And it’s because a woman who was a staffer on the committee, who I didn’t work directly for, but had kind of known of my work, called me when I was at my clerkship in 1997, and she, at the time, had then moved to the Justice Department and was working for Attorney General Reno.
Rosenberg: Who was it?
Monaco: Her name is Ann Harkins and was a wonderful mentor to me. She and people who I went on to work with very closely and are my friends to this day–people like Cathy Russell, Cynthia Hogan–all women by the way, who were the main lead staffers on this committee, and who were my bosses, and became tremendous mentors. So, Ann called me and said “Would you like to come work for the attorney general?” And I remember taking that call in my clerk office in Wilmington, Delaware where I–where my judge was sitting, and thought Yeah that sounds like a great idea.
Rosenberg: Yeah, I’d like to do that. You know, not a lot of people get that call out a clerkship.
Monaco: No, I was there–as I said, tremendously, tremendously lucky.
Rosenberg: And awfully good. You know, if I could only give one piece of advice to young lawyers, or doctors, or accountants, or engineers would be to find a really good mentor. And then if I had one request to them it would be to be a really good mentor to others one day.
Monaco: And it’s great advice. I tell you know, students I teach now at NYU Law School–
Rosenberg: You became a professor.
Monaco: Well of sorts, yes. And I’m very lucky to be able to do that and work with just tremendous students, really engaged really excited about the subject that I teach, National Security Law and policymaking. And I talk to them, what I tell them is it is more important who you’re working with and for, than what you are particularly doing. You may think you have a great desire to work in national security, or work on criminal justice issues, or work in trade or economic issues. But as a young lawyer, or as a young person setting out and trying to design your career, focus more on who you’re working with.
Rosenberg: I couldn’t agree more. I often share the following advice which is: pick a law firm or pick a place to work the same way you would pick a class in college, not by the course description, certainly not by the art on the wall where they take you to dinner, but by the people with whom you’ll be working.
Monaco: That’s exactly right
Rosenberg: It’s the single most important thing you can do as a young “anything.”
Monaco: I can trace probably every good thing that happened to me professionally in terms of opportunities I had, for you know, the first 10 years of my career, to the people I worked with early on who gave me opportunities.
Rosenberg: So, did working for General Reno lead you to the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C.?
Monaco: It did. It did. So, I was really fortunate to get to work with her at the end of the administration.
Rosenberg: What’s she like?
Monaco: She was a wonderful woman who was about as un-Washington as you could imagine. She of course, was a state prosecutor and was the prosecutor in Miami-Dade County, and pioneered work on drug courts and protecting children who were the victims of abuse. When she became attorney general, I think Washington didn’t know what to make of her. And interestingly, she became, I think a great figure in the Justice Department, even though it was a pretty new institution for her–she didn’t come up through the ranks of the Justice Department like you and I did, but she knew instinctively the value of the career men and women in that department. And she transmitted, I think, with her very being and the question she asked, and how she conducted herself, that it was so important that the career men and women at the Justice Department do their job independently free of any political influence. And she transmitted that in everything that she did. And I think earned great respect for that.
Rosenberg: My sense of her, and my interactions were limited–was that she was humble, kind, and she listened
Monaco: She did all of those things. She was passionate about the mission of the department. She was passionate about young people and mentoring them, and really was a wonderful leader, and you know, appreciative of the people. I’ll tell you a quick story.
Rosenberg: Oh, Please.
Monaco: One of my summers in law school, I spent working as an intern in the legislative affairs office the Justice Department as you know that the office and the just department that helps prepare people to testify before Congress. And this summer, is the summer of 1995. Then the attorney general, Janet Reno, who I didn’t know at the time, was being put through her paces on a number of issues including the tragedy at Waco. And I remember being an intern in the Legislative Affairs Office, helping put together the binders because of course nothing was online. This was all binders, big binders of material and pulling all-nighters doing that. But she didn’t know me from Adam, and I found myself in the back of the hearing room watching her undergo tremendously important and grueling testimony. And the next morning, I wake up and I go to my whatever my temporary desk and the legislative affairs division, and there’s a handwritten note from the Attorney General on my desk, thanking me for my help. Again, she didn’t know me from Adam. Fast forward now, Chuck, to I guess, four or five years later, I am now counsel to the Attorney General, and I was sitting behind her at one of these hearings. And at the end of the hearing, we pile into the car and I’m seated next to her in the car on the way back to the Justice Department. And you’d think she’d put up her feet and you know take the night off. What did she do? We’re driving back from Capitol Hill, five blocks to the department, she pulls out her yellow legal pad, which she always carried with her, and she said, “Lisa, who were all the people who helped work on this?”
Rosenberg: And I bet Lisa—first, I’m not surprised, because that’s the person I understood her to be–and second, I bet to this day, you know precisely where that thank you note is
Monaco: I do.
Rosenberg: Of course, you do.
Monaco: I absolutely do. And I knew then, as we were driving down, I was like, now I know how that thank you note got to me that first summer.
Rosenberg: And that simple act of grace and kindness–and really is relatively simple, is something that sticks with you your entire career. I remember, you know, little notes I got along the way, and so when I was in a position to write them—
Monaco: –exactly right.
Rosenberg: –I made a point of doing it every day if I could.
Monaco: And I tried to model that later. I don’t think I did as good a job as she did. She was a great model and really taught me about the mission of the department, and the integrity, and the unique role that it plays, right. As you know, it’s the only department in the executive branch that really has two functions: an independent investigative and prosecutor function, and a policy role.
Rosenberg: Both entirely legitimate.
Rosenberg: But sometimes at odds with one another.
Monaco: And they have to co-exist and the leadership, the best leaders of that department, know that they have to co-exist.
Rosenberg: Which is interesting because Janet Reno famously was at odds with the Clinton White House.
Monaco: Mm hmm. In those moments when she was at odds, is when she was doing her level best to preserve that coexistence of those two roles.
Rosenberg: So, you may have started life as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia.
Monaco: I did.
Rosenberg: With more insights into the Department of Justice and perhaps any of your colleagues.
Monaco: Did I mention that I’ve been very lucky?
Rosenberg: You mentioned you were very lucky. Did I mention that you’re also really good?
Monaco: Well, you’re very kind.
Rosenberg: So, when you start in D.C. as an assistant U.S. attorney, it’s a little bit different than other U.S. attorney’s offices because it’s also the prosecutor for the city of the District of Columbia.
Rosenberg: And you have a federal district court side, and you have a superior court side that handles local infractions and local crimes. And you started, I’m sure, in the latter.
Monaco: I did.
Rosenberg: As everyone does.
Monaco: As everyone does. So, you have to go through the rotation where you start in what was then, the misdemeanor court right where you’re doing the low-level crimes. I liken it to, and now this is a very old reference. So, you’ll get it, but many of your listeners may not.
Rosenberg: Because I’m very old.
Monaco: Exactly. You’re about my age. I liken it to that old show Night Court, and it was like that 24 hours a day. So, it’s, you know, processing all the different local crimes.
Rosenberg: Did you like it?
Monaco: I loved it.
Monaco: I loved it. It was a great job. One, people say this, and sometimes it sounds trite, I suppose, but there’s really no other way to describe it. When you go into court, and your job is, first thing in the morning, or any time that you were in court, and your job is to say to the judge: Lisa Monaco for the United States.
Rosenberg: I knew you’re going to say that. That’s still–and this sounds so hokey–
Monaco: I know, but it’s true.
Rosenberg: –but it’s sends chills down my spine because you’ve got to represent the United States of America.
Monaco: Absolutely. And that never gets old, one. And it is quite sobering, right. And it’s because your job as a prosecutor, as you know, is not to win. It’s to present your case to the best of your ability, sometimes warts and all, and you have a duty to the court to do that, and to do justice. And like, there’s just–there’s not a better job description, I can’t. Well if there is, I haven’t found it
Rosenberg: Nor have I. But in Superior Court for assistant U.S. attorneys, it’s also a high volume.
Rosenberg: You don’t have the luxury. For instance, when you worked on the Enron task force in Houston. I don’t know if luxury is the right word. But you had the ability to focus on one case or two cases intently.
Rosenberg: And when you’re a superior court you, don’t have that. And so, does that change the calculus?
Monaco: Yeah you know it’s interesting I say that as a young prosecutor, no matter what your surroundings, whether it’s in doing low level crimes, which you know to the victims or those crimes are not low level, but nevertheless, you’ve got to recognize the stakes are different, that it’s still really gratifying to be able to say you represent the United States. But, it is–it was a tremendous education in the role of the prosecutor. And I learned early on, that yes, in, in cities across our country, that is a volume business, right. And that has real implications
Rosenberg: And real risks.
Monaco: It has risks. It has implications for people on both sides of the issue in the courtroom. And it really drove home to me the role–the importance of the role of the ethical, responsible prosecutor.
Rosenberg: Right. Because I couldn’t agree with you more because by risks, I mean that you miss things, right. That there’s so much stuff moving so fast. You know, people of goodwill on both sides can miss stuff.
Monaco: That’s right. That’s right. And so, particularly in the setting I was in, you–I think you have to really make sure you are focused on that. And now, it’s exciting because I was on my feet, you know, 10 hours a day in court, all the time, and that was a great education and exciting for a young prosecutor. But you also, as you say you don’t have the luxury to just focus on one complex case. That came to me later on in my prosecutor career. But you have to be very mindful of the role that you play, the responsibility you have. And it’s the same responsibility, Chuck. Whether it’s a shoplifting case, or whether it’s a sophisticated white-collar fraud.
Rosenberg: One hundred percent.
Monaco: That’s what I learned early on
Rosenberg: At some point, you move from Superior Court, over to the District Court side, to the Federal Court side of the house.
Rosenberg: It’s a bit of a misnomer because everything in D.C. is federal.
Monaco: That’s right.
Rosenberg: How did that happen, was it after a certain number of years, do you have to apply?
Monaco: Again, the luck theme continues. So, I was moving through the rotation, right, you go from misdemeanors, that kind of period we were just talking about, to working on felony cases, more serious, violent crimes, to working in the grand jury presenting cases to a group of 16 citizens of the District of Columbia, who decide whether or not to charge a case
Rosenberg: Whether or not there’s probable cause to indict.
Monaco: Exactly. Right. So, I was doing all of those rotations throughout the office and then, I got asked to go over, as you said, to the federal side of the House, meaning prosecuting federal crimes.
Rosenberg: Did you like that?
Monaco: I did like it, and I–and this is the great colleagues theme continues. My friend, and now law partner, Steve Bunnell, who is a partner with me at O’Melveny & Myers. He, and Mary Pat Brown, both veterans of the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office, asked me to come over to the federal quote, unquote federal side of the House. And so, I worked there with them on public corruption and fraud cases.
Rosenberg: All right, which is really cool and important work.
Monaco: It was great. It was a great, great working with tremendous FBI agents, and Secret Service agents, and other members of federal law enforcement working these cases.
Rosenberg: How bad were you in your first trial?
Monaco: Well, I had had a few trials before I got obviously to the federal side of the house because I was in–
Rosenberg: You had trials in superior court.
Monaco: I had lots of trials in superior court. You make silly mistakes and you just hope the judge isn’t too merciless on you. But all great learning experiences.
Rosenberg: Right. Because that’s how we learn. You’re in a big law firm now where it’s hard for young lawyers to make mistakes. Both because they don’t have the opportunity, but also because the risks of mistakes are so high.
Monaco: That’s right. And which is why I think–look as much as I loved and I and I always advise young lawyers to go be prosecutors working as a public defender. But of course, the training you get early on in your career in a law firm is as a young lawyer is really going to be excellent. I think precisely because of that attention to detail.
Rosenberg: I think there’s a lot to be said for it, and there’s also a lot to be said for getting into superior court next year and, and making mistakes.
Monaco: You know a lot of people ask me: well do you wish–because later in my career that I’ve worked in a law firm–do I wish that I had done that earlier. I think you can’t game the stuff out. You take your opportunities where you find them, and I wouldn’t have traded my time in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for, for anything.
Rosenberg: After serving in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and on the Enron task Force, what do you do next?
Monaco: I was very fortunate to get to go work for then, a little-known Washington lawyer named Bob Mueller.
Rosenberg: Bob Mueller.
Monaco: Yep. Who was then the Director of the FBI.
Rosenberg: I’ve heard of him
Monaco: Yep, a few people now have.
Rosenberg: You and I have had–both had the experience of working for Bob Mueller the FBI.
Monaco: That’s right. I had big shoes to fill. Including yours.
Rosenberg: Well, mine were not particularly big. I loved working for the FBI and I loved working for Bob Mueller.
Monaco: I couldn’t agree more.
Rosenberg: What struck you about that place and about that man?
Monaco: I’ve had amazing jobs, including working for the president of the United States. When I think back, the job working with and for Bob Mueller, because of the time that it was in my career, and the time that it represented in his leadership of the FBI, I think amongst the most formative things I’ve done. What I learned, obviously about the organization, I knew, I thought I knew a lot about the FBI.
Rosenberg: Well you knew it a different way.
Monaco: Exactly. I would. I’d worked as a prosecutor with FBI agents and I obviously worked with members of the FBI when I was early on in my career in the Justice Department working for Attorney General Reno. But when I became First Special Counsel to Director Mueller and then later, Chief of Staff, I got such a wonderful view of an education in the mission of the organization, the tremendous professionals there, and frankly. the challenges that the organization faced. Now, remember, this is a few years after 9/11, and tremendous pressure on the organization to never let a tragedy like that day happen again.
Rosenberg: What a lot of people don’t know, is that there was also a movement afoot to break the FBI into pieces along the British MI5 MI6 model. And that started when I was working for Bob in ‘02 and ‘03. But I imagine it was really heating up when you were there.
Monaco: It was really heating up and there had been a number of commissions that contemplated this. Obviously the 9/11 Commission talked about this some–something called the WMD Commission, which a lot of people forget about, took up this question. So, there was almost a sense of existential threat, maybe too too severe a term, but there was a sense that the mission and particularly the domestic intelligence mission might be pulled out of it and into a stand-alone organization.
Rosenberg: So, let’s back up because everybody will know what MI5 and MI6 is. So, can you set the table a bit. Explain the British model.
Rosenberg: Explain what the FBI does differently, and then third question: why you think it would have been a good or bad idea to emulate the British model.
Monaco: So, MI5, people know from the TV shows and the lure, is the intelligence agency inside the U.K. and inside Great Britain that is responsible for domestic intelligence. MI6, James Bond, that’s foreign intelligence, right. So, think CIA and MI5 is domestic intelligence and has a rule one of which is also the FBI’s rule. So, in the British model, they separate out the domestic intelligence function and the law enforcement function. Here in this country, the FBI serves both. There’s lots of reasons for that. And one of them, is our particular focus on making sure privacy and civil liberties are protected and are governed under our constitutional system. And under our approach the FBI, since it is part of the Justice Department, a lot of people forget that, but it is one component of the larger Justice Department
Rosenberg: would it have made sense to emulate the British model and to split those functions apart out of the FBI into a separate standalone agency?
Monaco: So, I don’t think so. And look, reasonable people can disagree about this, but my thinking is the following: one in our system it’s very important I believe to keep that incredible power of domestic intelligence gathering tethered to, and part of the broader oversight of the attorney general and the broader Justice Department. Right. You don’t want a separate intelligence agency untethered from this broader mission and remember, the attorney general in our system, is responsible for privacy and civil liberties protections as well, and doing our law enforcement function consistent with those constraints.
Monaco: So, I think it’s important to keep those things together and make sure there’s a check on that tremendous power of domestic intelligence gathering. And then the other one, is a resource issue. I think that you have–and we talked about this a lot in the post 9/11 time period when we tried to figure out how can we better equip the FBI to understand the threat, and make sure we don’t have another attack like we saw on that day, and one of the ways is to realize that the criminal justice system actually can serve a very important preventative function, right. You can generate an understanding of potential threats by bringing investigations, bringing prosecutions, understanding what those bad actors are doing and getting a sense of what that network looks like, and then moving on down the chain.
Rosenberg: Not only can the criminal enforcement system help prevent attacks and thwart threats because of the intelligence it generates, it’s also an option for dealing with them.
Monaco: That’s exactly right. It’s a way to disrupt a potential threat.
Rosenberg: One of the ironies always struck me, Lisa was that immediately after 9/11, one of the criticisms was that government was stove piped, and information wasn’t flowing as seamlessly as we would have liked. So, the notion of creating a separate agency within the executive branch seems to, I don’t know, run counter to the notion of sharing and sharing it seamlessly.
Monaco: You know, there was a lot of talk about, after 9/11, of a failure to connect the dots. Remember, that’s a phrase a lot of people remember. This question of why didn’t we understand and know that some of the attackers were already here, and was there a failure to connect those dots, to share information between intelligence and law enforcement such that that we could have disrupted that. And a lot of people believed that that was because there was some wall in between the intelligence and the law enforcement. And so, I quite agree with you to split off and separate these two functions, would be to redirect the wall that people were so afraid of to begin with.
Rosenberg: I think that’s right, Lisa. So, what’s it like working for Bob?
Monaco: So, it was a great experience. It was like–I liken it to–it’s like being in front of a tough judge every day, right. As you know, you had to you had to know your stuff and it is a tremendous work ethic. But I think mostly, it was an education in leadership, in management and leadership, and leading with integrity, right. He modeled that in everything that he did, both in leading the institution through a very tumultuous time, keeping it from getting broken up in the way that we’ve just described, leading it through lots of different crises and periods of really heightened threat. I mean, people forget we’re now a long-ways from 9/11. As when you were counsel to Director Mueller, and as when I worked for him, the tempo of the threat activity was really quite striking. And I think people can forget that. And you had a window, as did I, into the intelligence that was coming in at a constant stream.
Rosenberg: It was a torrent. Sometimes, I wish that was just a stream. But what was so fascinating about that, Lisa is that that torrent of threat information, that intelligence that we received every single day drove the next day’s work.
Monaco: It was very reactive in that sense, and I think you’re right about that, but when I think about the education that I got, it was how to deal with that and seeing a leader leading an agency under stress and through, you know, a very difficult time for both the country and the organization. But it was also an education in how to shift an organization’s strategic focus, ok. So, in that sense, it wasn’t reactive at all it was trying to lead going forward. It was just changing how things had long been done for 100 years. When I was chief of staff at the FBI, it celebrated its hundredth anniversary. Right, so it had a storied and very successful history and experience of doing things the way they had been done.
Rosenberg: One of those things that the FBI has done now for more than 100 years is its approach to interviews and to obtaining information from other people. One of the controversies that Bob Mueller encountered, and therefore that the FBI encountered, was whether or not “it,” the FBI would participate in enhanced interrogations overseas. To me, that was a fascinating dilemma because there was a lot of interest in contributing to the fight post 9/11, but also this recognition by Bob Mueller that the FBI had a different role.
Monaco: That’s right. It had a different and distinct role and one that was grounded in the Constitution, in the guidelines and oversight from the Justice Department, from the courts that it has always operated under. Think of any investigative technique, it’s overseen either by the Justice Department and prosecutors at the Justice Department, or the courts, or both, right. And so, it doesn’t operate outside of those structures.
Rosenberg: And then its work is audited, in a sense, by the inspector general
Monaco: and by the Congress
Rosenberg: And by the Congress and by the press.
Monaco: Yep. And by the courts when they bring their cases.
Rosenberg: Sure. Because there are motions to dismiss and motions to suppress
Monaco: And ultimately, juries and judges get to credit or discredit the witnesses. And that is–that’s the system it operates in.
Rosenberg: Well, that’s the system we know because we had the privilege of working in it and seeing it from various viewpoints. But, how do you reconcile what we know with what sometimes seems to be the popular impression that the FBI is a rogue agency doing things on its own? That pains me deeply.
Monaco: It does me as well because I both know my own experience both as a prosecutor, and as somebody who worked inside the FBI, and I know the strictures it has to go through, appropriately so, I should point out. But I think there is some misperception out there, that it doesn’t operate sometimes in those in those confines now which is not to say, Chuck that there aren’t as there are in any organization sometimes going to be mistakes and are made, bad apples exist in every organization.
Rosenberg: Of course
Monaco: But the oversight structures are there to both catch them, police them, and make changes where warranted. And that’s what we should expect–we shouldn’t expect perfection, but we should expect to have the organization operate under those oversight mechanisms. And I’ve seen them do that.
Rosenberg: It’s a perfectly fair caveat. I’m really referring to the ethos of the place not the fact that it gets everything right all the time, but that the ethos is one that is tethered to the Constitution and the rule of law.
Monaco: Absolutely. And one that’s tethered to really believing that those tethers, those requirements, that oversight is not a burden. It’s really the, the job, right. And it’s carried as important, doing it the right way with integrity, is as important as anything else in the organization. That’s the ethos I experienced.
Rosenberg: How long did you stay at the FBI?
Monaco: I was there for three years.
Rosenberg: And from there, you want to run the National Security Division at the Department of Justice.
Monaco: I went back, as they say, across the street, to Main Justice.
Rosenberg: Which is literally across the street.
Monaco: Literally across the street: Pennsylvania Avenue between 9th and 10th streets, as you know the block very well. So, I literally cross the street and I went to work in the dep–then the Deputy Attorney General’s office, working on national security issues. And then later, President Obama nominated me to be the Assistant Attorney General for national security.
Rosenberg: Which was a relatively new division.
Monaco: It was the first new litigating division that had been created in the Justice Department in decades. And it was specifically, a reform that came out of the post 9/11 series of reviews.
Rosenberg: Right. And the idea was to put in one house, the counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and intelligence functions of the Justice Department.
Monaco: That’s right, that’s right. And it is really interesting because I’d begun my career in the Justice Department as we talked, about working for Janet Reno, when the National Security Division didn’t exist. Its functions were kind of separated out into different parts of the Justice Department, and then end up years–and it was a great privilege for me to then be able to run this organization and this division newly created to respond to the tragedy of 9/11.
Rosenberg: Did it make sense to organize it that way?
Monaco: It made tremendous sense, and I saw the value of it every day.
Monaco: Because as you said, you had the terrorism and prosecution function aligned with the intelligence lawyers and agents who were seeking authority from the FISA court to conduct court authorized intelligence surveillance on agents of foreign powers. So, you had that mission aligned with the prosecutor’s, so you didn’t have–it was literally the physical manifestation of the removal of the wall we talked about before. So, the National Security Division really was the structural answer to lowering that wall, and the legal reforms that came along with it.
Rosenberg: So, you had a series of really important jobs, but this is the first big management job you have.
Monaco: That’s right, yeah.
Rosenberg: What’s that like?
Monaco: I love that job.
Monaco: I love the job, one, because I got to lead an organization, and it couldn’t have had a clearer mission, right. It was born of, as we’ve talked about the post 9/11 reforms, it married the intelligence function with my love of the law and prosecution and investigations and, and that work, and it allowed me to exercise, on my own, all the things that I had learned and seen Director Mueller doing as a leader of an organization. Now granted, the National Security Division is a lot smaller than the FBI, but I found myself taking some of those lessons about setting clear priorities for the organization, and following those priorities, setting a clear mission for the organization aligned with those priorities, and doing the things that I saw him doing, trying to take some of what I learned in working with Director Mueller and seeing what it takes to manage and lead and think about managing and leading an organization, and applying that at the National Security Division.
Rosenberg: So, I’m told, you are really good at it.
Monaco: I had a great team and I should say: the men and women of the National Security Division, career lawyers and analysts all, were some of the, and are, some of the finest public servants I’ve ever worked with.
Rosenberg: You know, and that point about them being career public servants–a lot of people don’t appreciate that. The FBI, for instance, is today about thirty-seven thousand people.
Rosenberg: Only one of whom is a political appointee.
Monaco: That’s right.
Rosenberg: When you are at the National Security Division, you were politically appointed.
Monaco: I was.
Rosenberg: Even though you came up through the ranks. But the overwhelming majority of the men and women who work there, are career public servants
Monaco: All of them.
Rosenberg: Except for you.
Monaco: Mm hmm. And I will say, I got into a, a little bit of a, not quite a tussle, but you know occasionally, folks in the political ranks will want to make sure that you know they have a say in who some of the personnel are in the front office of a particular division. And I thought it was really important that the only political appointee in the National Security Division be the Assistant Attorney General, the job I had. Because it is so important that those national security issues remain free of any hint of political involvement.
Rosenberg: It is quintessentially an a-political function
Monaco: That’s right. And I’ve been lucky to work with a set of people coming up through the ranks. As you mentioned, I spent, I spent about 15 years in the Justice Department before I went down to the White House, and half of that time was as a career prosecutor.
Rosenberg: Right. And you know, so I had a similar transition where you think of yourself as a career prosecutor, a career public servant and suddenly you’ve been nominated by President and by the Senate, you hold a political position.
Rosenberg: How do you reconcile that?
Monaco: Well, you know—
Rosenberg: I’m not saying that you have to.
Monaco: Yeah, I think I thought about it. It was an opportunity to lead this division that I was so proud of. So, it wasn’t, it wasn’t an issue that I struggled with, but I’ve always really valued, and seen myself as somebody who grew up in the Justice Department early on spending a majority of that time as a career prosecutor, and that was really important to me
Rosenberg: To this point, you’ve had remarkable experiences, mentors, and jobs. You had the privilege of working in a White House for a president. And that’s an extraordinary thing for any American. What is that like?
Monaco: There’s a roller coaster every day, but a tremendous privilege.
Rosenberg: You were the Homeland Security Adviser for President Barack Obama.
Monaco: I was.
Rosenberg: That’s a big job.
Monaco: There’s a big job, formal title: Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. And that’s relevant because the job had a pretty broad span of issues that it dealt with. It is–it was another reform post 9/11, right. So, the job didn’t exist before 9/11. It was created after 9/11 is–to have one person focusing 24/7.
Rosenberg: And it was 24/7.
Monaco: And it was 24/7. If there is something more than 24/7, it was that.
Rosenberg: 25/8 I think.
Monaco: Exactly. One person in the White House reporting to the president and directly accountable to the president, focusing on threats to the homeland. That was the phrase.
Rosenberg: Which is much broader than counter-terrorism or even much broader than counterintelligence.
Monaco: That’s right. That’s why I made the point about formal title was because it really was broader than, even though it was conceived in the wake of the greatest terrorist attack we’ve ever seen, it was really encompassed more than that, in fact, grew to encompass even more as time went on.
Rosenberg: So as lawyers might say: to include, but not be limited to…
Monaco: Exactly right
Rosenberg: …pandemics, school shootings, natural disasters…
Monaco: Cyber attacks. Exactly right. All of those things.
Rosenberg: So, let’s put your portfolio aside for a minute. What is it like to walk into the White House? Talk to me as somebody who just did not grow up ever imagining that you would be in a White House.
Monaco: Look it’s on inspiring, right. Any time that you get to be in that environment, and I never, I never contemplated that I would have that role. I never went through my other jobs thinking oh that’s the job I’m going to have. If you had told me a year before, let alone two three years before—
Rosenberg: –let alone when you were doing shoplifting cases in Superior Court.
Monaco: Exactly, like that that’s a job I would have I would have said you were nuts. So, it is humbling. It is sobering to walk in to the west wing of the White House every morning and you can have a perfectly well-planned out to do list and it just gets tossed out the window.
Monaco: Yeah, on like a half an hour into the day usually. It was it was really humbling to have a sense of responsibility. I mean, we talked about the breadth of the portfolio. That’s one thing but to feel like you were part of a mission to work with the president’s national security team to help keep the country safe. That’s the job
Rosenberg: You and I have had similar jobs, but at different times and I remember walking into the Justice Department on the fifth floor where the attorney general sits, and looking at those spectacular murals on the wall, and appreciating that that was my workplace.
Rosenberg: I felt the same way at the FBI, even though it’s sort of an old and ugly building now, but physically the White House is both imposing and inspiring.
Monaco: It is it is. And to, you know walk, out whether you’re walking out onto the West Executive Drive, or walking out in front of the White House with, with the portico and the columns that are so iconic, you can’t help but feel like you are both a participant in and a witness to history.
Rosenberg: And you probably, because you’re a thoughtful and reflective woman, thought about that every day.
Monaco: I did–in not every minute of every day, but on the ride home at night, and trying to reflect on the day, and thinking: this is, this is your job, this is your role, these are your responsibilities
Rosenberg: And you’re responsible directly to the president.
Monaco: Mhmm, yes
Rosenberg: And what was it like working for Barack Obama?
Monaco: It was a tremendous privilege and a challenge every day
Monaco: Because he is an incredibly intelligent, thoughtful, and demanding boss as you would expect.
Rosenberg: Well, you have had bosses like that before
Monaco: I have, I have. You know, at the at the level that I was at in the White House, and working on that that breadth of issues and the immediacy of so much coming at you, as much as I had on my plate every day–and we’ve talked about the issues, that was one fraction of what he was dealing with every day. I joke, although it’s true, that the president had a nickname for me, and it was Dr. Doom. That’s what he called me because every time he saw me, every morning, I participated in what’s called the President’s Daily Brief. His—it was his first meeting of the day, and usually my third meeting of the day, and he would sit together with the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, the National Security Adviser, myself, as the Homeland Security Adviser, the Director of National Intelligence, and a few other key staff, and we’d go through the overnight intelligence reporting, what was happening everything from North Korea, to Syria, to China, to homeland threats.
Rosenberg: So, this is a rhythm that you’re used to from the FBI, but it’s broader in scope.
Monaco: That’s exactly right. And here again, and this is a theme, Chuck, right–that this is something a tempo, a meeting that occurred for the president after 9/11. Now, all presidents received the daily brief before 9/11, but it took on a different character I think after 9/11. And that would be the vehicle and the place where terror threats and other immediate threats were briefed to the president, certainly after 9/11. And after 9/11, what did–what was a new kind of invention, was the key members of the president’s national security cabinet were having some version of that meeting every morning. Again to make sure that everyone with those responsibilities was getting the same information. And so, beginning from when I started working at the FBI for Director Mueller, I was a participant in some version of that meeting throughout the rest of my career, and then ultimately, in the White House. So, I, I was in different seats at that proverbial table. But ultimately the last scene I occupied, was on the couch in the Oval Office every morning…
Rosenberg: …as Dr. Doom
Monaco: …as Dr. Doom. And he had that name for me because I would, when it came to be my turn to brief him every morning, I inevitably was bringing him bad news. And also, when I appeared and darkened the door of the Oval Office, outside that meeting–so if I appeared in the Oval Office door sometime later in the day and it wasn’t a pre-scheduled meeting, he knew it’s because I had something bad to tell him.
Rosenberg: And how often would that happen?
Monaco: Unfortunately, too often. Whether it was a school shooting, or a terror attack abroad involving some Americans, a hostage-taking you name it. I had to do that too many times.
Rosenberg: How would you describe Barack Obama as a leader. What were his characteristics?
Monaco: Thoughtful, deliberate.
Rosenberg: Was he a good listener?
Monaco: Very good listener, and somebody who sought out other views.
Rosenberg: How did he do that?
Monaco: So, then you probably had this experience if you ever were in the Situation Room with him. As you know, that table in the Situation Room where the members of the cabinet would sit, there’s a row of chairs behind, lining the room, and the people in those chairs were staff to the members of the cabinet.
Rosenberg: So, in Washington speak, we call it “principles plus one.”
Monaco: Principles plus one, or backbenchers.
Rosenberg: So, the principles would be the cabinet secretaries–
Monaco: That’s right.
Rosenberg: –you, the White House chief of staff, and the plus one would be someone you brought with you.
Rosenberg: To help you staff that meeting.
Monaco: That’s right. And I saw, without fail, when the president was running that meeting, right, when he’s seated at his chair in the Situation Room to–around the table, he would get the views of the principals around that table, but particularly, when the issue was particularly thorny, when it was a difficult issue, he always went to the plus one. He always went to the people around the edges
Rosenberg: A level deeper.
Monaco: He did. And he had an innate sense of being able to see when somebody had something to say but they weren’t necessarily offering it. And he would draw it out. And I think that’s a mark of a good leader, a good listener, and somebody who wants all the information, and he knows that–and I found this: when I would run meetings of the principals or the deputies to try and arrive at recommendations for the president, because that was of course part of my job in the White House, the more information you can bring in, inevitably, the better decision you’re going to render.
Rosenberg: One of the signs of great leaders, at any level, would be to sort of combine a confidence with humility and that humility often includes, in my view, doubt: expressing doubt, embracing doubt, embracing ambiguity, understanding that there are people in that room, in that situation Room who know more than you. About just about every topic.
Monaco: He, you know, the capacity to grapple with gray is something that I think he wasn’t afraid of, right. He didn’t need things served up as black or white. And he was—
Rosenberg: –but they often don’t come that way.
Monaco: They never come in that way, particularly the toughest problems. And of course, if it gets to the president, it’s by definition, not an easy call like all that stuff gets dealt with below him. So, he’s always dealing with the parade of pick the least bad option. That’s the option that’s always presented to him. And so, I think he was unique in the leaders I’ve seen, comfortable in the gray space and trying to make the best decision amongst some pretty nuanced options.
Rosenberg: Do you miss public service?
Monaco: Oh yeah. I miss the mission. You know I don’t miss getting woken up in the middle of the night by the Situation Room, which would happen with disturbing frequency in particularly in my last job. But, I miss the mission and the team of professionals that, that we had really dedicated people. I mean, a lot of people said well you know you were Dr. Doom and you had this incredible portfolio of difficult issues. How did you sleep at night? And the answer really is: that I saw a tremendous dedication of people. In both–in my immediate circle, but well beyond that, I knew, and had seen firsthand, whether it’s in my time at the FBI, and then beyond, just the round the clock work going in.
Rosenberg: I don’t think people appreciate that either, that these jobs: law enforcement, intelligence, military, are literally, not figuratively, literally 24/7 jobs.
Monaco: That’s right, that’s right.
Rosenberg: That somewhere around the world, an American is serving his or her country, at perhaps, great personal risk, all the time.
Monaco: That’s right. And I was privileged to be able to see some of that. I traveled a great deal both when I worked with director Mueller, traveling around the world to see FBI agents and in harm’s way in many places, and then of course, when I worked in the White House, traveling either to meet my own counterparts or traveling with the president, sometimes in areas of tremendous risk, and particular men and women in uniform putting themselves on the line every day. It’s tremendously humbling and gratifying to see.
Rosenberg: That’s the word I was going to use: humbling. So, Lisa, I could talk to you all day, but I wanted to end this at the beginning because I know that you come from a remarkable family and that you’re really close with your three brothers and your parents. You grew up in Boston.
Monaco: I did. Right outside of Boston: Newton, Massachusetts.
Rosenberg: I think I recall that your home was close to the route for the Boston Marathon.
Monaco: That’s right. Patriots Day, when the Boston Marathon is run–every Patriots Day in April every year, there’s always a state holiday. So, my brothers and I always had the day off from school, which was a great gift also.
Rosenberg: And the Red Sox are always home that.
Monaco: That’s exactly right
Rosenberg: They always play an early game.
Monaco: Yeah. And we would, because, we didn’t often have tickets to the Red Sox, but we always would go and line the marathon route and cheer on the runners, and the home I grew up in was right near Heartbreak Hill, right near the crest of Heartbreak Hill near Boston College. And so that’s where we would go to watch.
Rosenberg: Tell me a little bit about your parents and about your brothers.
Monaco: My parents come from immigrant families. My father is first generation. His parents immigrated here from Italy. His parents’—English was not their first language, Italian was. He grew up in South Philadelphia and went on to become a wonderful surgeon and doctor–
Rosenberg: –he’s a renowned surgeon and a pioneer in transplant surgery.
Monaco: That’s right. That’s right. And he and my mother, my mother, who grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. Her father, my grandfather, was a fireman, and built with the help of one of my uncles, the house she grew up in. And my grandmother on my mother’s side was a wonderful, kind of flinty New Englander who was–
Rosenberg: That’s almost redundant.
Monaco: That’s true. You know, swimming at the Y you know, well into her 90s and just, you know. So, I was really lucky to come from a family that prized that kind of work ethic. My parents, they didn’t have all the advantages that they were able to give to my brothers and I. And I think that’s something I’ll always treasure that they made education the first priority, and modeled work ethic and values. That probably is the best education you can get as a kid
Rosenberg: And you are no doubt inordinately proud that you carried those lessons with you through your entire professional life.
Monaco: I’m lucky that they made it possible for me to have these opportunities.
Rosenberg: Well, thank you for talking about them.
Monaco: Thanks for having me.
Rosenberg: And thank you for joining us on the Oath. It’s been great to be here. It’s a real pleasure to have you here, Lisa.
I would like to thank Lisa Monaco for spending some time with us and sharing her experience. She has a remarkable story, and I’m so glad we heard it. Next time on the Oath: join me for a conversation with Jim Baker, the former general counsel for the FBI. He was in charge of the FISA process and we’ll tell you how it works, and why it’s so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice take their time, and get this right. Thank you so very much for listening, and please do continue to share these episodes with your friends and colleagues. The support we have had has been overwhelming, and I am humbled by it. If you haven’t yet reviewed us please do so and please give us five stars.
Also, I would love to have your thoughtful feedback. Please e-mail me at “theoathpodcast”–that’s one word: firstname.lastname@example.org. Though I cannot respond personally to every email, please know that I read each one, and your input and your feedback has helped us to shape this show and to make it better. Thank you for that.
The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo, with Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon and Rob Hebert. Lauren Chadwick and Laurel Hyneman provided production support. Our senior producer is Barbara Raab and Steve Licktieg is our Executive Producer. This is the Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.