May 1, 2018
Managing Director of Morgan Stanley and Global Head of the firm’s Cybersecurity Fusion Center
Jen Easterly, a 2003 Young Leader, has a distinguished career in national security policy and counterterrorism strategy. A retired Army officer, Ms. Easterly spoke with us about her years in the military and the White House.
First of all, congratulations on your recent James W. Foley Freedom Award. You are being honored this year for the work you have done to enhance the ability of the U.S. to recover American hostages. Could you tell us a bit about your work on hostage recovery?
Being part of the Hostage Policy Review was one of the most challenging and most rewarding things I was involved in during my time at the White House. Following the brutal murders of courageous American and British journalists and humanitarian aid workers by the terrorist group ISIS in the summer of 2014, President Obama asked us to take a hard look at our hostage policy and make recommendations to him to improve the US Government’s ability to safely recover our hostages held abroad by terrorists and criminal groups, to include how the Government works with the families of these hostages throughout the recovery process. I had the privilege to help coordinate that review, though the effort was truly a team endeavor working with colleagues from almost every department and agency across the US Government, with our foreign partners, and perhaps most importantly with the families of former and current hostages as well as former hostages themselves. And what came out of that months’ long review, including a new Presidential Policy Directive and an Executive Order that put into place new structures across the Government – from the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell to a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to a Hostage Response Group directly accountable to the President for hostage issues – I think has largely been a success story in making a tangible difference in our ability to better coordinate our hostage recovery efforts and in forging real partnerships with the families of hostages. There is more to be done here – to include bringing Americans like journalist Austin Tice, held unjustly in Syria since 2012 – home safely, but I do think we’ve made real strides in improving both policy and process. And getting to know and work with individuals like Diane Foley, who showed such amazing grace and courage in the face of such enormous tragedy and did so much to help us throughout the policy review, truly reinforced to me that one’s life will ultimately be defined by the quality of our relationships and the impact we are able to have on the lives of others.
What was it like to work as a Special Assistant to President Obama?
Working on President Obama’s NSC staff was an amazing privilege; getting to come to work every day in the beautiful Eisenhower Executive Office Building, working with a fantastic team, incredibly committed counterterrorism professionals across the interagency, and for senior leadership who I truly admired and respected was a terrific honor.
One day in June of 2015 encapsulates in many ways what it was like to work for President Obama; my close colleague Luke Hartig wrote very movingly about it, so I have to give him full credit. You may recall that on the 26th of June the Supreme Court handed down its decision making gay marriage the law of the land, a decision hailed by the President in the Rose Garden, as making “our union a little more perfect.” Later that day, the President would board a flight to Charleston, South Carolina, where he would stand with hundreds of Americans, mourning the loss of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME church with a powerful eulogy that culminated in his leading the church in Amazing Grace. Shortly after his Rose Garden address and just before boarding the plane to Charleston, President Obama invited my team and me into the Oval Office to discuss the Hostage Policy Review – which had been published earlier that week – and to thank us for our work, an incredibly meaningful gesture in a day already packed with significant Presidential activity. He didn’t have to do that, but in his actions and his words, he showed his appreciation for what we had done, and made our months of hard work all the more meaningful. Walking out of the compound that night, the White House shown bright with the colors of pride, reinforcing my own pride in working in such a special place for someone who was both a great leader but equally, a great person.
The terrorist threat has evolved significantly over the course of your career, from your time in Iraq and Afghanistan to today’s digital age. In your view, what is the biggest challenge to combatting terrorism in our media-saturated, interconnected environment?
My team and I spent a good portion of our last year in the White House focused on developing a strategy to prevent terrorist exploitation of technology for recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization to violence, an area where I think some strides have been made over the past few years, but where there remains much work to be done both across the Government and within the technology community. While ISIS’s capacity to direct external terrorist attacks around the globe has been much diminished with the significant loss of the group’s sanctuary in Iraq and Syria, it still has the ability to inspire followers, providing them a sense of belonging and identity, something my colleague Josh Geltzer and I have written about. What I worry a lot about though, is the next generation of terrorist group, whether that is an ISIS 2.0 or a resurgent al-Qa’ida being able to recruit a much more tech-savvy group of followers, those who can effectively leverage technology not just for propaganda but for cyber-attacks against our critical infrastructure — our power systems, our air traffic control systems, our financial sector. I don’t believe these groups have this capacity now, but we learned 17 years ago that we must never again suffer a failure of imagination when it comes to our national security.
Looking back on your career, what is one lesson you have learned that you would impart to those who are just starting out?
I spent the majority of my career – nearly 22 years on active duty and four years as a cadet at West Point – in the Army. Getting to serve our nation as an Army officer is something that defines me and something I take enormous pride in. While things have evolved significantly since the time I entered West Point – with nearly 25% of this year’s matriculating class being women! – I entered and served in an Army that was largely male-dominated, an environment where one is largely incentivized more to assimilate than to actively highlight or embrace one’s differences – whether it be in gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As such, it took me probably longer than it should have to become truly comfortable in my own skin. So one thing I tell those who are just starting out is to do just that – be your authentic self. And if you find yourself in a job or an environment where you don’t feel you can really be yourself, it may not be the right place for you to thrive or ultimately to be happy…so choose wisely. In the words of the legendary Mae West: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
Finally, you recently left the government after nearly three decades to join Wall Street – how has that transition been and how are the challenges of your current job compared to your time in Government?
A year into the job, I can happily report that the transition – more a process than a point in time – is going great. I’m currently serving as the Global Head of Morgan Stanley’s Cybersecurity Fusion Center, where our mission is to help protect the Firm from cyber threats. It’s truly purpose-driven work given the size of our Firm within the financial ecosystem, and the Firm itself has a terrific collaborative culture that feels a lot like the teamwork-centric environment I grew up in in the Army and experienced in the White House. One of my core challenges here as I build out my team is ensuring that we’re able to recruit and retain the best talent, particularly in an environment where there are more jobs for cybersecurity expertise than there are people. This comes down to building a diverse “start-up like” culture of ownership and inclusion, one that encourages innovation and initiative, where people come to work every day excited about what they’re doing, who they work with and for, and feeling empowered to make a real impact. At the end of the day, this is about leadership, and in that sense, is an extension of things I’ve done throughout my career.