Boston bombings test White House terror advisor

Boston bombings test White House terror advisor

The Boston Marathon bombings are the first major test for President Barack Obama‘s new top advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, Lisa Monaco, rumored to be in the running to be the next head of the FBI.

Monaco, who replaced John Brennan as the top White House counterterrorism official when Brennan was confirmed as CIA director last month, led the first briefing Obama received on the bombings that struck downtown Boston Monday afternoon. Monaco was one of two officials in the Oval Office, along with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, when Obama made his first calls about the bombing to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FBI Director Robert Mueller, and she briefed Obama again Monday night.

On Tuesday morning, Monaco led the president’s briefing on the bombings (pictured above), which included the participation of Mueller, Napolitano, McDonough, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, Deputy National Security Advisor For Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Jake Sullivan.

The spotlight is new for Monaco, who has worked in close proximity to both Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden for several years and is a fast-rising star in the Obama administration. But it may just be the beginning. Several reports state she is a top contender to lead the FBI when Mueller steps down in September.

As Mueller’s former counselor and chief of staff, Monaco is one of the key officials involved in the FBI’s post-9/11 reforms and is intimately familiar with how the FBI is shifting its focus to counterterrorism.

"I worked with Director Mueller to help advance the FBI’s transformation from a law enforcement organization focused on investigating crime after the fact to a national security organization focused on preventing the next attack," she testified at her own confirmation hearing to become assistant attorney general in 2011. "These changes reflect an intelligence-led approach to combating national security threats."

She also has extensive experience studying terrorist threat information and analysis, which could be particularly useful as the government attempts to get to the bottom of Monday’s attacks.

"Every morning for the last several years, I have sat alongside talented analysts, agents and national security professionals and reviewed intelligence and assessed how the country is responding to the latest threat streams," she testified. "This experience has taught me that our nation faces complex and evolving threats. To combat them, we must be aggressive and agile in our approach, and we must do so consistent with the rule of law."

Monaco led the Justice Department’s national security division from 2011 until last month. From 2009 to 2011 she service as principal associate deputy attorney general. She worked for Mueller at the FBI from 2007 until 2009, and before that, spent six years in the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Colombia, where she stood out as the co-leader of the Justice Department’s Enron Task Force.

But Monaco’s ties to both Obama and Biden personally go back much further. According to her senate questionnaire in 2011, as first noticed by Jeff Stein‘s SpyTalk blog, Monaco attended University of Chicago Law School from 1994 to 1997, when Obama himself was a senior lecturer there.

Even before that, Monaco worked as a researcher at the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was chaired at the time by Biden. Monaco also worked in Delaware when she clerked for Court of Appeals Judge Jane Roth after law school. She interned during law school in the Clinton White House Counsel’s office.

If Monaco is selected to succeed Mueller as FBI director, she can be expected to defend the expanded investigative and surveillance powers that have been granted to the federal government since the original 9/11 attacks. In answers to questions submitted by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IO) in 2011, Monaco said she supported the continued authorization for law enforcement use of pen register and trap and trace technologies, which collect information on phone lines, national security letters, and delayed notice search warrants.

In her testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2011, she said she personally supported the extension of three key provisions of the Patriot Act that were set to expire: roving wiretaps to monitor foreign targets, the lone-wolf provision, which is used to monitor a foreigner who may not be connected to a terrorist group, and the business record provision that gives the government access to commercial data on targets.

"If these provisions were to expire, we would be, I think, quite diminished in our ability to keep up with both rapidly evolving threats like those who use sophisticated means to try and thwart our surveillance effort and it would diminish our ability to keep up with threat streams as they come in," she testified. 

Monaco is also a strong supporter of the Obama administration’s drive to stamp out leaks to the media, which has included a record number of prosecutions against government employees for interacting with reporters.

"These are very, very important prosecutions," she said. "This Committee has, I think appropriately, pressed the Department and the intelligence community to bring these matters, to focus on these matters, to ensure that unauthorized disclosures are prosecuted and pursued, either by criminal means or the use of administrative sanctions. Leaks do tremendous damage. "