Who Is Lisa Monaco, the White House's Counterterrorism Adviser?

Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Charles Dharapak/AP

After two explosions rocked the Boston Marathon on Monday, President Obama huddled with some of his closest advisers. In the Oval Office was Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and FBI Director Robert Mueller, who sat with his chin in his hands and a white binder in his lap. Across from the engraved wooden desk to the president’s left was a relative newcomer, homeland-security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco. She held a capped pen to her face as if deep in thought. The streets of her hometown had burst into chaos, a grim reminder that Monaco’s job is a big one: advising the president on how to best protect his country.

Monaco, who replaced John Brennan after he was confirmed as CIA director, took her new job counseling the president on counterterrorism policy and coordinating the executive branch’s homeland-security activities just one month ago. She’s now charged with keeping the president updated about the bombings that killed at least three people and injured more than 100 others at the finish line of the world's oldest annual marathon, a Boston institution since 1897. 

The explosions, which the Obama administration calls an act of terror, hit close to home for Monaco, who was raised in Newton, Mass. and attended the Winsor School, an all-girls prep school, before attending Harvard University. With Americans clamoring for answers, Obama insisted Tuesday that “we still do not know who did this or why” and pledged to hold those responsible.

Obama’s response, partly, is Monaco’s responsibility. And both components—investigating the incident and eventually prosecuting the culprit—speak to her history at the Justice Department and FBI. While she’s a relative newcomer to this particular role, Monaco is no stranger to stressful, high-profile jobs: As assistant attorney general for national security, she oversaw Justice’s national security division since 2011 after moving up the ranks there. She and Mueller have worked closely together before: The University of Chicago Law School graduate was his former counsel and chief of staff. She initially joined the FBI on detail from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

At the FBI, Philip Mudd sat with Monaco through virtually every staff meeting and threat briefing since they first met in 2005. Mudd, who met Monaco while working in the same hallway when he came from the CIA to serve as the bureau’s then-new National Security Branch deputy director, said Monaco’s background in law enforcement and prosecution is starkly different then Brennan’s, who hailed from a foreign intelligence and CIA background. This makes Monaco an excellent official to manage a domestic crisis like Boston, Mudd said. 

“She sat on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Mudd said, giving her both an understanding of how the FBI will investigate this case and how the Justice Department might prosecute it.

Frances Townsend, former homeland-security adviser to President George W. Bush who worked with Monaco at various points in their careers, agreed. “She is literally tailor-made to coordinate this sort of an event.” Monaco was a federal prosecutor for six years until 2007, handling high-profile cases including the prosecution of former Enron executives. She also served as Attorney General Janet Reno’s counsel from 1998 to 2001, handling national security, law enforcement, budget, and oversight issues. Monaco’s experience, Townsend said, helps her know the right questions to ask the investigators, and then how to give the president advice about the ongoing investigation’s strengths and vulnerabilities.

On Tuesday, Obama said it remains unclear whether the Boston attack was carried out by a foreign or domestic terrorist group or a malevolent individual. As the FBI investigates the case, Monaco will liaise between her former boss and her new one. “Because of her personal relationship of trust with the FBI director, he’s going to be able to talk with her in a more informal way—when he might not to someone he doesn’t know so well,” Townsend said. “That’s all to the benefit of the president when the president is trying to evaluate.” While Obama will receive formal briefings, likely from both the FBI and intelligence agencies, “he can also factor in the additional nuance that someone like Lisa can bring to this because of her relationships in the law-enforcement community. That’s a huge advantage.”

Center for a New American Security senior fellow Phillip Carter, who formerly led detainee policy at the Pentagon, worked with Monaco when she was a high-ranking Justice Department official responsible for a swath of national security issues in 2009.  “Lisa’s a cool, deliberate person who really has the persona of a federal prosecutor," he said. "In most discussions [she] would typically ask ‘What’s the evidence?’ or ‘Where do the facts point us?’ and then make decisions based on a cool, dispassionate weighting of that in a way a prosecutor would. She’s also very tough; there’s no compunction at all about pursuing tougher options in the counterterrorism world on her part. She really understood the need to be aggressive and the different tools at her disposal, whether it’s the use of prosecution, military, and intelligence tools.” As Monaco handles the Boston case, Carter said, she will bring her cool-headed approach. “I can imagine her counseling the need to find out the facts first before making any decisions or taking any significant action,” Carter said.

Monaco will also likely coordinate the domestic agencies working the case. While the FBI typically takes the lead in these matters, Carter said, the White House will work very closely with state and local agencies, and the Department of Homeland Security, and also “across the Rubicon with the intelligence community” and others, Carter said. “I can see Lisa doing an extraordinary job of bringing all these players together to gather facts and make decisions.” Monaco’s personal relationship with Mueller and the FBI leadership, Townsend added, gives her the ability to cut though the bureaucracy in a way an outsider may not be able to.

Success in this type of role comes down to the nexus of Monaco’s experience with her personality. “You’ve got to keep cool,” Mudd says, “and that’s hard to do if you don’t have the experience she has.”  The U.S. has been dealing with these homeland-security issues for 12 years since the 9/11 attacks, Mudd notes, but “the number of people who have senior executive experience at multiple agencies [like Monaco] is relatively rare.”

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