Lisa Monaco, ’97: Dedicating a Career to Service and National Security

Lisa Monaco

A quick quiz: Which Law School graduates have served in the following positions: (1) Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, (2) chief of staff to the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and (3) Assistant US Attorney General for National Security?

It’s a trick question, because the answers are all the same. Lisa Monaco, ’97, held all of those positions. She was President Obama’s principal counterterrorism advisor for almost four years, advising the president on all aspects of counterterrorism policy and strategy and coordinating homeland security–related activities throughout the executive branch, including chairing meetings of the cabinet-level Homeland Security Principals Committee. Before that, for two years she led the Justice Department division that oversees major counterterrorism and espionage cases, and for three years during the Bush and Obama administrations she worked for FBI director Robert Mueller, as counsel and eventually as chief of staff, helping to build the bureau’s capacity to prevent domestic terrorist attacks.

For someone so evidently capable, there is of course more. For two years she was the primary advisor to the Deputy Attorney General on criminal policy, law enforcement, national security, and civil litigation matters, as well as assisting in the overall management and supervision of the Justice Department, including its 94 US Attorney offices. Her earlier work as an Assistant US Attorney included service on the Enron Task Force, where she co-led the trial team that prosecuted former Enron executives. Before that, she was counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno from 1998 to 2001.

“The training I got at the Law School has been fundamental in every job I’ve held,” she reflected. “Having a rigorous legal education was essential because in any complicated context you have to be able to do what the Law School teaches so well—to marshal strong, succinct arguments that take into account multiple points of view and to always work toward the best outcome among many possibilities. There is no better preparation for public service in any form than what the Law School provides, in class and in the interactions that take place outside the classroom.”

Just three weeks into her tenure as Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, the Boston Marathon bombing occurred. “That fully immersed me into what my job was going to be like,” she said, noting that several other events occurred in close proximity to the Marathon bombing, including a deadly explosion at a Texas chemical plant, a possible avian flu outbreak, and ricin sent to federal officials. “All of those things were within my responsibilities, as well as all the other ongoing internal and external threats,” she said. Obama came to refer to her as “Dr. Doom,” she said, since she seemed to bring him bad news every day.

The positions she currently holds include serving as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law, Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center on Science and International Affairs, principal at the strategic advisory firm WestExec Advisors, and cochair of the Cybersecurity Group at the Aspen Institute. She serves on several corporate and nonprofit boards, including Hostage US and the Law School Council.

Monaco received the Law School’s Distinguished Alumna Award in 2017, when she also addressed the Law School’s graduating class, 20 years after her own graduation. “If you had told me 20 years ago that I would be asked to speak to a class of graduates of this great Law School, I wouldn’t have believed it to be possible,” she recently remarked. “I am grateful to be able to stay engaged as part of the Law School community now in multiple ways—as part of the Law School Council and as colleagues and friends with some of the brilliant professors who taught me, including Cass Sunstein and Geof Stone, with whom I worked in government, and Richard Epstein, now my colleague at NYU. I owe a great deal to the Law School—it’s a wonderful place.”