Panelists discuss their distinguished careers in intelligence and offer advice to young professionals interested in or already pursuing a career in the intelligence space, as well as the challenges confronting the field on federal and local levels.
LAFOLLETTE: Welcome, everyone. Take your seats. A few more seats up here in front. You get bonus points.
Before we get started just a few announcements before I turn it over to our wonderful panel. Good evening, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this session of the Young Professionals Briefing Series. We have quite a few people here in New York and we have over a hundred and fifty registered to join virtually on Zoom.
I am Stacey LaFollette. I’m managing director of the meetings program here at the Council. Now, if you’re sitting here or watching online and you’re wondering how did I get here, what exactly is this series, you were recommended to us by a Council on Foreign Relations member.
So we reach out to our Council members and we ask them for suggestions of young professionals such as you all who would like to be engaged with the Council and would like to learn more about U.S. foreign policy.
The requirement is basically you’re all in your twenties, you’ve graduated, but you don’t yet reach the age requirement of thirty years old to apply to try to be a member of the Council. Now, we try to engage you in a few different ways so we want to make sure you’re all aware of this. We invite you to an event at least once a month and some of them are like our discussion tonight which is exclusively for you all. This meeting has been designed for our young professionals.
But we also invite you to some Council member events that are designed for the wider Council membership and those are really interesting to attend. So we really encourage you to come to some of those as well.
For example, earlier this month we invited the New York young professionals to join us for a special viewing of the off-Broadway play Eisenhower which we co-hosted with Columbia University. So some special treats like that will be sprinkled throughout the year in New York and Washington and virtually as well.
Another way we engage you all is through our monthly newsletter, which you should all be receiving, and that just highlights new resources that the Council produces and gives you a taste of what’s on our website—you know, links to podcasts, backgrounders, articles, the work of our dozens of scholars, and links to events. So you can look at past events. You can watch them. You can listen to them. You can read the transcripts.
If some of you are sitting here and wondering what exactly is the Council on Foreign Relations, what do we do, in your packet that we handed out today and that was chatted out on Zoom we have the Council’s mission statement. So you can read that and kind of get a taste of everything that we do as a nonprofit membership organization.
And in that packet we also have our website CFR.org. I encourage you all whether you know about the Council or not to look at that and really look at all the resources available to you. It’s constantly updated and you can, like I said, look at all the podcasts and articles and backgrounders but also all the events we produce. We do dozens of events every week so you can look at past events and, you know, on any topic you basically want on U.S. foreign policy.
Now, if you have ideas for future programming for this series also included in that packet is an email address, [email protected]. We encourage you all to email us if you have ideas, feedback, speakers you want to hear from, topics you want. We’d love to hear from you so please reach out to us.
Now a few practical matters before I turn it over to Jacob. This discussion tonight is on the record. It will be posted on CFR.org afterwards. Our panel this evening will speak on stage among themselves for about half an hour and then we’ll turn to you all for the last half hour for questions.
So start thinking about your questions. We’ll be taking questions both in person and virtually. So in person if you’d like to ask a question raise your hand. If Jacob calls on you please stand, wait for one of these microphones, introduce yourself, and ask your question. Online you could click on the raise hand icon on your Zoom window.
When your name is called out by our operator Anne Healy please accept the unmute now prompt and then introduce yourself. Please be aware that everyone here will be able to hear you but they won’t see you so don’t worry about that. Your video will remain off.
Now, our presider this evening is Jacob Ware, who is a research fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is based in Washington so very happy that we were able to steal him for one evening to come for this discussion.
He’s very impressive as is our panel, who Jacob will introduce momentarily, and we’re very excited to have all three of them here for you. It’s a real treat, I guarantee you. So I hope you enjoy the discussion. Thank you.
Over to you, Jacob.
WARE: Well, thank you so much, Stacey, and welcome, everyone, to the Council on Foreign Relations and to our meeting today, “Pathways to Service in the Intelligence Community.”
As Stacey said, I’m Jacob. I’m a research fellow here at CFR actually based in our D.C. office. I work primarily on counterterrorism so some relevance to the topic today, and I’m going to be presiding over today’s discussion. Let me first just say what an absolute honor it is because these two speakers are incredibly esteemed public servants and we’re all in for a real treat.
So let me start by just introducing them quickly. You should have the bios, I think, but I’ll go over it for the record.
Yaël Eisenstat is vice president at the Anti-Defamation League where she heads the Center for Technology and Society. She leads ADL’s efforts to hold tech companies accountable for the proliferation of hate and extremism on their platforms. Yaël joined ADL in October 2022 after spending more than two decades working around the globe on democracy and security issues as a CIA officer, special adviser to former Vice President Biden, global head of elections integrity operations and political advertising at Facebook, a diplomat, and head of a global risk firm. She has been widely published, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, The Hill, Daily Beast, Wired, and Quartz, and has appeared on most major news networks. She earned an M.A. in international affairs from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, also known as SAIS.
Deputy Commissioner Rebecca Weiner oversees the New York City Police Department’s intelligence and counterterrorism bureau managing investigative, analytical, operational, and engagement efforts across the domains of counterterrorism, counterintelligence, criminal intelligence, infrastructure and event protection, cyber threat intelligence, and geopolitical risk. She develops and implements policy and strategic priorities in the intelligence and counterterrorism bureau and publicly represents the NYPD in matters involving counterterrorism and intelligence. Prior to assuming command of the intelligence and counterterrorism bureau Deputy Commissioner Weiner oversaw the NYPD’s counterterrorism operations and analysis section, developing an internationally recognized intelligence and threat analysis program. She also served as the first representative of local law enforcement on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Intelligence Council where she focused on transnational crime and terrorism.
Let me quickly say to you both if there’s any other details that would be worthwhile, you’re welcome to raise them as well.
So, as Stacey said, we’re going to do about thirty minutes of kind of conversation up here and then we’ll open it up to Q&A so get your questions ready.
I’m wondering if we could just start by having both of you—Rebecca, we’ll go to you first—describe your journey into the intelligence community, and everybody loves a story so if there’s any particularly important moments on that journey that stand out to you we’d love to hear.
WEINER: All right. Well, thank you for having me. I’m so happy to be here.
And my journey actually started in this building so it feels particularly meaningful to be talking to you guys about your journeys from this vantage point, which is a shockingly long time ago. But time passes quickly. I still feel a near peer in age although it isn’t the case.
So I started off working as a research associate for the science and technology fellows at CFR when I had just graduated from college. Are there any Harvard alums among you? OK. OK.
At any rate, it was a fantastic experience and opened my eyes to all of the things that matter about having a first job, which is the substance but also the people—people who were advanced in their careers, people who were starting out in their careers—and the opportunity to engage with incredibly smart, dynamic, energetic folks on a broad variety of issues was in some ways like an extension of what I loved about college.
So I think it is—and we’ll talk about this and the interaction between jobs and careers and technology and the 2020s—but an early plug for a job that lets you be face to face with your peers learning from each other. Hugely important to me.
I then moved overseas to Paris and left New York City on September 4 of 2001 for a job doing biotechnology policy work at the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and needless to say, you know, my world and the world at large changed pretty radically a few days later and I was in a laundromat trying to wash my clothes.
I had just found an apartment that I needed. It was before the euro. It was a long time ago. I had just found the apartment that my now husband but then boyfriend and I were going to be living in for the year, and he didn’t speak any French and he was actually sitting at a cafe waiting for an interview with Bloomberg where, ironically enough, he now works several years later.
But 9/11 happened. Everything got turned upside down, backwards. It was very odd to be living overseas newly overseas. The banks for that day shut down. We couldn’t get the dollars converted into French francs to make the apartment, which is, of course, the least of anybody’s problems. But it just was one minute illustration of just the shock wave that engulfed the world at the time.
And I wasn’t exactly sure where my career path would take me but I did decide at that moment that I wanted it to take me into the field of counterterrorism and it took a couple of years to figure out how and why.
But another plug for serendipity. I then went to law school back up at Harvard and was doing a fellowship writing a monograph about private security contractors at the Kennedy School after law school and Ray Kelly, who was the police commissioner at the time, came up and described this program that the NYPD was in the process of creating that would do very local level counterterrorism work working alongside federal counterparts, sharing information, but developing a capability to protect New York City natively from within the department, and I thought that sounded like a really interesting way to get involved at the ground level.
So I just went up to him after the talk and introduced myself and said, you know, I’ve had national security policy experience and recent law school grad and are you interested in hiring somebody like me, and the next day somebody called and I went and got interviewed and the rest turns out to have been history.
I thought I was going to stay for two years and move on but it’s been an amazing place to work for reasons that I will explain. So, you know, it was a little bit of external serendipity and some internal serendipity that wouldn’t have happened but for my couple of years working at the Council on Foreign Relations and super grateful that my career has taken me to where I am today.
EISENSTAT: I will try to give the shortest version possible because my career has gone like this. I think serendipity is a good catchphrase for the day.
So I finished grad school in 1999 and at the time when you have a degree in international affairs I think there wasn’t as wide a field of where you could go with that as there is today because anything you work on today has an international component.
So when you leave SAIS in 1999 you’re pretty much looking at government. The funny thing is—and this is a story that now that I realize we’re on the record maybe I shouldn’t tell this way—but there was never the goal of working at the CIA. I was sure I would work either at USAID or State Department, be a diplomat, spend my life overseas.
My primary focus and interest was always Africa—it’s what I focused my master’s on—and the truth is in 1999 there was a hiring freeze at both of those places and somebody said, well, you should throw in your application here. This is not the story that people want to hear for people who’ve been trying to get into the CIA for years. But I, in a panicked moment, threw in my application. Very different times. It’s a pre-September 11 world.
They called me. They brought me into the building, which I’m sure they don’t do anymore for interviews, and that night I remember going back to my apartment in Adams Morgan in D.C. thinking, well, that was weird. I was just at the CIA. And then I went out—like, went out for the night with my friends, and this will never be the story probably in the year 2023 but they called me the very next morning and offered me a job.
So, clearly, something in that conversation convinced them that I would be a good analyst. So I started out as an analyst working on Africa and it’s interesting. So my training program—they were very behind in training so I didn’t start my training program until nine months after already starting the job, meaning I was in my training program in Omaha at Strategic Command on a training trip when September 11 happened. And I don’t expect anyone in the room to realize that’s the very same place where President Bush’s airplane landed that day.
So I went from I’m going to be an analyst working on Africa and figuring out in a post-Cold War world what the U.S.’ role can be on the global stage to knowing in an instant my entire career had just changed. I was very fortunate, though, that for me what always has compelled me is the human consequences and the human side to anything we’re working on.
So while many of us went down some form of the counterterrorism path what I did love about my career was I went down this counter extremism path, meaning really spending time on the ground with the people who are most susceptible to extremist messaging and figuring out how to build bridges, try to get to people before they’re sucked in.
Anyway, flash forward because otherwise I’ll be here for an hour, so from there I—in 2004 I finally found the opportunity to move over to State Department and so I did and became a diplomat. And we can talk about—I know that’s not—it’s not as easy as it sounds. Oddly enough, once you’re in government it’s not always intuitive how to jump from one agency to another.
And then I spent a few years overseas in Nairobi and then came back and was asked to go to the National Counterterrorism Center to help really start and build up the Africa program there. I mean, the Africa program existed but to build it up more.
So spent a few years there and then had the amazing opportunity to go over to the White House and serve. The irony is Vice President Biden—then Vice President Biden was looking for a global counterterrorism adviser and every agency put in their top two people. We interviewed. I was more of an Africa person and amazingly—I interviewed with Tony Blinken and he’s now our secretary of state and he said, well—we just ended up talking about Sudan and the future of Sudan and what do you think we should be doing, and by the end of the interview it was, like, well, we need a global counterterrorism adviser but we also need an Africa adviser—do you want to do both.
Sounds great. There are not enough hours in the day to do both of those things. So I did and it was an amazing time, and then after my time at the White House ended I actually came up to New York for a year and a half and this is why I can—I’ve been in every agency but it’s not the normal trajectory.
I ended up being detailed over to the FBI and embedding in the Joint Terrorism Task Force here in New York to work on Somalia cases with which are actually done out of New York and some of which have ended up on the news or in movies. So a government career was not at all what I expected and there’s ups and downs but I had an amazing, amazing career and opportunity.
I did leave government in 2013. I won’t get into the whole private sector journey but it is complicated to leave the intelligence world and figure out who you are as a private citizen in the private sector. So it took me some time to figure that out.
I never planned to talk about my CIA career until, for those who have Googled me, I wrote a piece—a New York Times piece, actually—about the president at the time’s speech at the CIA and the stars behind him and that’s where I sort of outed myself.
And from there I started, oddly enough, shifting my entire focus—and I promise I’ll wrap after this; this takes me to where I am now. I was someone who had spent my career really focusing on counter extremism and counterterrorism, a lot of what you would call, like, hearts and minds work overseas and just started seeing how social media was engaging in the exact same tactics on how to radicalize people as I had seen in the analog world years ago.
And so what I did in 2015 was write this big piece in Time magazine, and with a very big, lofty title about, like, former counterterrorism official says that, you know, social media is radicalizing us all.
So went down that path, started really focusing on the social media angle to all of these things and that’s when Facebook called. Went to Facebook at 2018 to head their global elections integrity work and left six months later and went very public with why I had spent the last five years really trying to figure out what accountability looks like or how social media helps contribute to radicalizing people and the spread and proliferation of extremism and that’s what brought me to the role I’m in now where I work on these exact issues at ADL.
That was long. Sorry.
WARE: No, it was excellent. I’d love to follow up at some point about the hearts and minds conversation because I think that’s something that we’re still struggling with, perhaps worse than ever in the social media era as I’m sure you’re intimately aware.
One thing I wanted to ask about is because you have different experiences—obviously, Yaël, you served primarily in federal government, Rebecca local government, city government. What are the differences? If you could both speak about advantages of each, disadvantages of each, and explain kind of, you know, how young people should be thinking about those options.
Rebecca, why don’t we start with you?
WEINER: Yeah. OK. So I was at the NIC which was actually much more similar to working here at CFR 2010 and ’11 and the National Intelligence Council under the umbrella of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and really a great opportunity to, again, talk to incredibly smart, knowledgeable people about areas that they spend their careers working on and great exposure to federal agencies. In NYPD intel on counterterrorism bureau we oversee all of the task force officers who are assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
So we work in the federal alphabet soup all day long so we’ve got tons of exposure, and I can say there are cultural fingerprints to each agency. Whether it’s NYPD, FBI, CIA, Customs and Border Protection, whatever it is you name it, there’s a culture that goes along with the agency and there’s a difference between being in headquarters in D.C. for most of the federal agencies or even at 1 Police Plaza, where I work now, and being in the field. There’s just a very different vibe.
NYPD has been a draw to me for the last seventeen years that I’ve worked there because we tend to be—well, A, we are an incredibly diverse and large organization. Fifty thousand men and women work for the NYPD and come from dozens of countries, speak dozens of languages. We became a majority minority back in 2006. So just an incredibly diverse place to work and that is linguistically, culturally from a national origin perspective but also background and that’s going to be true in the federal system as well.
But a strong culture unites police officers in the city and I have particularly appreciated the ways in which the police interact with people. So, again, it’s about getting into actually experiencing directly what it is that you’re working on and so one of the things that drew me to the program was, well, I can be in the federal system and be working on Africa and I might be spending time in Africa or I might be mostly focused in looking at Africa from D.C. But if I am at the NYPD and my investigation is happening in Manhattan or in Queens I can physically go there and get a measure of the place.
So the opportunity to have that direct and immediate engagement was a big draw and, you know, I think that the other element of it is feeling like you are affecting the outcome every day of what you work on, which is not to say that you don’t feel that in the federal government as well. But it’s been a big draw and the variety of issues that you get to work on.
People leave the NYPD and they say, you know, I’m going to miss the clowns but not the circus, or it’s the greatest show on Earth and you have a front row seat to it, and that really is true. No matter what the issue is the police are dealing with it day to day for better and for worse.
So the immediacy, the diversity of experience, and people in the organization and the kind of can do culture for me have been a big draw. But I think you all pointed to something which is really important which is, you know, when you’re entering into this behemoth of a national security apparatus or an intelligence apparatus or for anybody who’s interested in law enforcement you go in the door and then you get your sense of the lay of the land, and the nice thing is you can kind of hopscotch around and have a really broad set of experiences that people used to habitually spend thirty or twenty years in an organization and an agency and now that’s less common.
But you can still acquire the variety of experiences by being in government work and bouncing from agency to agency. So for anybody who has been disincentivized to apply because you think it will give you a much more monolithic experience that isn’t at all the case and you are well positioned to have the same kind of variegated career on the government side as you do in the private sector.
EISENSTAT: Yeah, I would agree with all of that. I mean, so it’s—you know, I started in federal at a time when—and I’m not saying it’s not that way still today—every agency has their culture and every agency thinks they’re the best.
So I started at CIA so, obviously, I started at the best in terms of the intel services. That is—everyone’s perception is that their organization is the organization. I will tell you, having worked at CIA, FBI, embedded with the NYPD, and ODNI I had amazing experiences at every single one for different reasons.
Again, when I started I think it was less common to jump around as much as I did. It was also less common to be asked by other agencies. Like, when you’re in CIA you’re usually in CIA and that’s it. I think it’s probably more common now.
But even within the same organization you can have ten different careers. Even within CIA I was an analyst on Africa and then I—at some point I was the senior intel officer. At some point I was the one actually editing the President’s Daily Brief. Like, they’re—each one of those is a whole different career so it never felt stale.
I don’t want to romanticize it. Again, it’s bureaucracy. There are things that are great. There are things that are not great. For the local level I did find, like, when I left SAIS I admit all of us thought about federal. Looking back now, if I had known then what I know now I might have actually considered local at least equally if not more because to your point you really get to feel that impact at a much more granular level.
So I think there’s pros and cons to all of it but the reality is that government service is government service.
WARE: Wonderful. We’ll open up to questions in just five minutes or so.
There’s one question that I find always comes up at these kinds of meetings and I want to make sure I ask you both. Can we talk for a second about being a woman in this field, whether you find there are different barriers to entry, barriers to advancement, and if you have any tips for young women especially who feel daunted by what is often assumed to be or appears to be a very masculine field?
Yaël, why don’t we start with you for that one?
EISENSTAT: Sure. So I know that my experiences are very outdated but I suspect that some of these challenges still remain. There’s no question it is a very macho field that I entered into. I don’t even know if we still use that word. But it was—I would say I spent more time than less being the only woman in the room especially, unfortunately, the higher up I got.
Not in general, not for all intelligence but for specifically in the counterterrorism world and, again, I’m not sure that that’s true anymore but especially when I was at the White House. I remember one time walking into a meeting in the Situation Room and everybody was very serious and it was mostly men in uniform. And I walked in and cracked a joke about being the only woman in the room and nobody laughed, and I was trying to break the ice. Like, these things—yes, it’s still probably a somewhat male-dominant world, especially in the field.
But there’s also different areas. Like, in the field especially if you’re on the more clandestine side I suspect it is still much more male dominant. I don’t have great tips because I don’t—I think every woman’s experience is different and I would never want to ascribe my way of handling things as the way that any other woman should because we all—like, I just was raised to be very strong minded and have no problem taking up space and walking into a room. That doesn’t mean that I expect that should be everybody’s experience.
I will say something that will surprise everyone, though. I never dealt with such overt sexism as I did when I left government and went into the private sector, and that might surprise people but I—at least during my day it doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist in government but there were still, like, rules and there were still consequences.
When I went to some of my first jobs in the private sector it was overt. There were no actual sexism rules in place in these companies. So in a very weird way I did not experience it in government the way I did in the private sector.
WEINER: I am the first woman to hold the position that I’m in and, you know, that was a big deal publicly in the messaging around my promotion, and at the time I don’t think I fully internalized the significance of that element. Obviously, to me it’s a wonderful honor. I’m really excited to be in this position. I’ve done this work for a long time. I love the job.
But for younger women that I’ve spoken to since I got promoted it’s been just tremendously exciting to feel that I might somehow present a path forward that people didn’t view for themselves.
So I want to say to everyone here you should consider government service if you aren’t already working in government, and for any women who feel deterred by the impression that the national security field or law enforcement or intel is male dominated, you know, it really isn’t in many places.
So the intel analysis shop that I joined back in 2006 has many women. It has a woman who is running it right now. I ran it previously, and there are more and more women but still not nearly enough in uniformed police jobs. We had our first female police commissioner, who stepped down back in July, who was wonderful.
So we are still in the era of firsts and that’s a really important era to be in. It’s also a very important era to get through, that it is no longer notable. So I really look forward to the moment where it’s not unusual to have women in these positions and it really isn’t anything to remark upon, and we still have some work to do in that arena.
One of the things that I was surprised by—when I joined NYPD I didn’t have children. I do now. And was a little daunted by the pace of work and thinking about how to balance that with family and that’s true of male colleagues as well. It was very true for me and one of the wonderful realizations that I have made about law enforcement in general, NYPD specifically, is sometimes the high intensity jobs where much is demanded of you are actually the ones that value family the most and there is a certain family element to the department and an understanding of competing priorities and responsibilities—that while we don’t have many of the perks of private sector jobs that some of my friends and family members have and flex time and hybrid work schedules and all of that that structurally seem more amenable to having a family we actually do have a culture of people who understand the need to have a real vibrant life outside of work.
So that’s been a somewhat surprising and very welcome realization and, you know, I think part of the job that we’re all doing is making the unusual habitual and there’s a certain responsibility that we have to lean into that, to change the cultures in ways that are more modern.
So I encourage particularly women to join the field.
WARE: Awesome. Thank you.
At this time I would like to invite participants to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this conversation is on the record. There will be a microphone being passed around so if anybody has any questions fire away.
We’ll go down here in the front. Please stand up, introduce yourself, and fire away.
Q: Thank you. I’m Jay Brixham (ph) in med school just up the road at Mount Sinai.
Thanks so much for your time. I was—just in line with what you were speaking with at the end of, like, family and balance I think one of the things I want to hear more about if you could answer is how you come home after dealing with sort of what you know in counterterrorism but then you—like you described coming home from the interview and then going out with friends at the bar.
How do you make that transition every day? Because I feel like that’s something that I’ve had difficulty in my life. I’d love to hear your take on it. Thank you.
WEINER: Sure. That’s a great question. And you know, you said you’re in med school.
Q: (Off mic.) I was in the military before, so—
WEINER: OK. I think there’s so many fields that require you to make these transitions and being a doctor is a really good example of that. My dad is a doctor and I always would sort of watch him come home at the end of the day.
So it’s quite difficult. Sometimes if you’re dealing with hard subject matter to be able to decide I’m going to shelve it at the door or I can’t—I need to bring it home but I need to do it in a responsible way that doesn’t burden your family members because your own struggles at work and the weightiness of what you’re dealing with are not necessarily topics that your loved ones have signed up to incorporate themselves.
So I think that’s a really great question. I’m glad that you asked it and it’s something that I continue to struggle with absolutely every day and I know that the men and women who are on the streets who are seeing horrific things every day in the course of their work have to really struggle, and that’s an area where the organization needs to provide services and make them not just available but remove any kind of stigma for folks who are consuming horrific content, right, watching terrible videos which, you know, we’ve all spent years doing if we’re in this field, seeing things that are quite difficult to unsee either somewhat attenuated behind a screen or directly in the world.
So, you know, as you think through where to go one of the things that’s really important is the agency or the department or the business thinking about its employees and their mental health as well as just drawing them to the job and asking a lot of them, and if the answer is not really it becomes a lot harder to stay and to keep your morale and to support the people who are in your orbit outside of the work domain.
EISENSTAT: So I admit I have not perfected this. In a weird way it was easier when I was in government. It was before we all—I don’t mean to sound like a dinosaur. We didn’t all have smart phones yet and also in a classified environment I couldn’t take my work home and in a weird way there’s something to that because now I am 24/7. The last six weeks for where I work has been extra traumatizing and I haven’t figured out the right balance and how to turn it off. I’m just going to be honest about that.
But as a leader for my team I have repeatedly told my team these are all the services that are available to us. This is the coaching service you all have access to for free. This is the mental health service that you all have access to.
I make it—I make sure that any email or Slack that I send after hours I delay and send it for the next morning unless it’s urgent. Like, I am trying to set boundaries for my team that I never set for myself. But the reality is I would be lying if I said that some of the hardest things that you see or do it’s very hard not to take it home with you.
I have found—what I do appreciate about where I work right now is it is very grounded in, like, family time. We take, for example, Friday night and Saturday very seriously and everything is shut off. I find that people who are most grounded within their family and friends and make sure that they’re balancing that seem to cope the best. I have not perfected it.
But to your point, it is something that everybody should be asking of their employer when seeking employment what that looks like and how they support their employees, especially in some of the harder issues.
WEINER: And I just want to add, you know, I think part of the issue is if you’re engaging on something and it’s complicated and emotionally fraught and maybe even deeply disturbing and you’re doing it in the service of a mission you believe in or a problem you’re helping solve that can be stressful but also empowering.
But we are all besieged with so much imagery and news content in the course of our daily lives no matter what our jobs. Some of those costs are being borne by all of us whether we’re in the field or not. So just kind of an important thing to acknowledge. No matter whether you work in a hospital or for ADL or NYPD or you’re just a human reading the news lately those barriers have become quite porous and important to defend against.
WARE: Wonderful. We’ll take a virtual question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Owen Lee.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me? Hi. My name is Owen Lee and I am affiliated with the Control Risks Group calling from San Francisco.
I wanted to ask if you could provide any thoughts on career accomplishments and directions that would help any potential applicant stand out to either a federal or a local level intelligence organization.
WEINER: You’re probably much more relevant right now than I am in this. (Laughs.)
So yes, absolutely, and I think for us hiring at NYPD accomplishments are one thing but demeanor, temperament, interests, the way you approach problems, critical thinking—the way we determine whether somebody we think might be a match to our organization has something to do with your experience and whether you have subject matter knowledge.
But it’s much more about, you know, how your brain works and how you thrive in a workplace environment and whether the things that make you thrive are elements that you would be exercising working for our department.
So, you know, it’s about curiosity. It’s about how you engage with people who might have completely different experiences and backgrounds from you, whether you tend to be more of a team worker or an autonomous worker and what environments do you particularly enjoy and blossom.
And, you know, of course, the habitual benchmarks of how have you done at previous jobs or school and what your areas of substantive expertise are are relevant. But I think from, you know, most of my counterparts at other federal agencies diversity of experience and background is a really important element to the team building that we need to do in order to be effective in the counterterrorism world and when we think about the threat environment that we’re confronting right now it is one that is so fast paced and changing. It is incredibly varied, right, with threat vectors that come at us at speed and at scale from all around the world, all sorts of kinds of ideological underpinning to our counterterrorism threat environment.
So the diversity of experiences that we need to match the diversity of the threat is quite profound and that wasn’t necessarily as much the case when we were in our earlier years where in the counterterrorism context they were really dealing with for the most part al-Qaida, other giant terrorist organizations that were for the most part externally directed into the homeland.
And so things are really different. And somebody who has tech background, business background, medical background, coding, policing, you know, all of those elements are needed in order to make an effective team today.
EISENSTAT: Yeah. I’ll just add, so, obviously, you have to get in the door for the interview, and what accomplishments and résumés and things you need right now to get through that I don’t know. But I do know, as someone who’s also been hiring, same thing; once you do get to the point of that interview, I know for me—and I’m interviewing at ADL the same way I would have when I was in government—I’m less interested in the résumé at that point. I am much more interested in how you think about problems, how you solve problems, your critical thinking skills. So that and being able to tie that to actual examples of this is how I thought about that problem or this is how I—here’s an example of how I did this is going to get you further, at least with me, in the interview process.
But exactly what you need to put on that résumé to get it through USAJobs to get it through a federal agency, unfortunately, I don’t know the answers anymore.
WARE: All right. We’ll go back in the room. Right here in the middle.
Q: Hi. I’m Lili Turner. I work for the Microsoft threat analysis center. I’m a China analyst.
And this is a really broad question so apologies in advance but I’m interested to hear your perspectives on open source intelligence and what you envision its trajectory being within the intelligence community.
WARE: Great question.
WEINER: It’s future is bright. You know, I think for both of us we have spent much of our careers dealing with—well, you’ve worked in the classified environment. We are open source driven by necessity as well as by design and that’s proven to be really helpful over at the NYPD.
So there’s a strong HUMINT—a human intelligence element to what we do and there’s a very strong open source intel element to what we do and that’s always been the case. Back in 2006 when there was a lot less in the open sources and it was quite a different ballgame than it is now.
But the proliferation of information from which we derive intelligence that is available online has been really helpful for programs that are geared toward leveraging that kind of technology and data and, you know, I think in dealing with local law enforcement very different from the information that’s available to a federal agency.
But I think the future is open source absolutely one hundred percent and it’s bright. And for all of you who are in this field, you will have many opportunities to show your expertise.
EISENSTAT: Yeah, it’s such an interesting question. When I first began there was no—I remember that anything we would do based on open source was just sort of like you’re in the CIA. Like, that—anyone can do that. You have all this access to all this classified information, and I would say back then twenty something years ago that was true, right. Like, we could get really interesting intel from signals intelligence or HUMINT and I remember the evolution when more and more open source started making its way into the analysis.
But looking at what I do now, I mean, we have the center on extremism at ADL, which is really top of class and that’s all open source. So I still think there’s a place for being able to use all the different kind of sources. I do think if I were in the intel world now just the amount of sheer data and information that is out there, the bigger challenge is how do you even find the needles in the haystack.
But absolutely open source is—I mean, again, all of our center on extremism work it’s all open source and very top of class. It’s also a big threat vector, too. So there’s a lot of risk and there’s a lot of opportunity for law enforcement and intel in the open source world.
WARE: We’ll go back to the virtual.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Wyatt Toehlke.
Q: Hey. My name is Wyatt Toehlke. I’m the assistant secretary of commerce in Virginia and had a question about the interview process.
How does the actual interview process compare—in the intelligence community compare to the private sector?
EISENSTAT: I’ll say mine is super outdated. Mine, again, happened in 1999 and I sat down with the guy and we talked about Africa and all the way—but I can look right back at that and still know he wasn’t testing my résumé. I mean, my résumé got me the interview, that’s for sure. But he was testing how I analyzed the problem.
It wasn’t to see if I had the right answer. It wasn’t—and I didn’t know this at the time. I literally thought he and I were just having this very cool conversation about—I don’t remember which country we were talking about at the time. There’s no question he was trying to figure out how I analyze a problem.
In the private sector, depending on the company it was similar. Like, at Facebook what’s interesting is—it was different because I was being interviewed for a pretty senior role at that point but the traditional Facebook interview is very much, like, here’s a problem, go solve it, and then tell us how you solved it.
So it’s similar but in a very different way. It’s really about trying to figure out how you think.
WEINER: I haven’t interviewed in the private sector recently so I am not very up to date either. I would imagine there’s a fair amount of convergence at this point around the more case study focused interview which is, you know, what Yaël was just describing of asking questions that help reveal how a person thinks and sorts through information, and problem-based interviews rather than the kind of prescribed question that we all did and strengths and weaknesses and greatest challenges and those kind of standard interview questions, which can be really helpful, I suppose, at times but probably reveals less of utility to the interviewer. And I know that our team are focused on some hypotheticals of, you know, how do you evaluate this problem and give us a sense of what kind of tools you might look at to try to solve it.
So more practical experiences are drawn out in an interview rather than more straightforward answers that to me feel less dynamic as both an interviewer and an interviewee. But that’s a great question and I don’t feel like I know the answer to that.
EISENSTAT: I want—I’ll add one point to that.
Well, first of all, in no place that I’ve ever interviewed candidates for was there—was I asking questions that had yes/no answers or right or wrong answers. But right now—so I’m not in private sector. I’m in nonprofit world. But I will say one thing that I have done with everybody I’ve interviewed because I have found that it isn’t a given.
I give everyone a writing exercise. I need to see how people write as well and that is challenging because I have no idea if they go feed the writing exercise to ChatGPT these days. So, I mean, there’s a trust factor there. But after any interview I don’t make any final decision without a writing exercise.
WEINER: That is really important, writing.
WARE: Any questions in the room?
EISENSTAT: I saw the two of you fist-bump when I said that, so maybe you like writing exercises. (Laughter.)
WARE: We’ll go here in the front. James.
Q: Hi. My name is James Kennedy. I’m the research associate for the military and intelligence fellows here at CFR.
My question for you is that you both mentioned the kind of cultural change of people jumping around between jobs and I was wondering if you thought looking for hiring analysts if there was kind of a marginal benefit to that that diminishes over time, kind of the whole specialist versus generalist argument and if you thought there was kind of an ideal point to settle into one of those or maybe stop moving around as much.
EISENSTAT: I’ll say for me my goal was never to move around as much as I have. Even now my goal was still not to move around as much as I have. So please don’t take this as, like, the example of what—I will say this.
When I’m interviewing people I know that nobody’s looking to stay in a job for the rest of their lives, although I think that’s unfortunate because I do think there are careers that could be amazing to be in for your whole life.
But if I get a sense that this person from day one is making it clear that they only want to come here for a year or two and already have the next thing they want to do in mind I’m going to tell you that’s a red flag, too.
I know that wasn’t exactly your question. But I think there’s benefits to moving around and getting a lot of experience but what I miss, which I had in my earlier part of my career, is being the expert on something that I earned over a number of years and that earned my credibility.
I got more satisfaction out of my job knowing that I was the expert in something. So I would never underplay the importance of also building up your expertise and staying in something if you love it.
WEINER: No, I think that’s such a good point. I remember after the first six months that I was at NYPD—and that’s true in other jobs I’ve had at OECD, here at CFR. I said, OK, I have no idea what I’m doing and then at six months I said, OK, I’ve got this. I totally understand it. And then at two years I thought, oh my gosh, there’s just this giant universe of things that I don’t know.
So having the humility and the tenacity to understand that what you think you’ve mastered you probably haven’t and that the fun is in expanding your comfort zone and that you can do really by digging into something is very satisfying.
I agree that what we’re looking for often in our applicants, even if they’ve had a variety of experiences before, once you bring somebody on board and you expose them to sensitive proprietary information you want them to stick around. You want them to develop expertise but you also want them to keep keeping your secrets and do all the work that is really integral to the intel role.
So looking for tenure is quite important, and I know this isn’t what you asked and I mentioned it earlier but I just want to make another plug because it’s so important for you guys in particular. Being in person really matters, and it is not convenient and it is not necessarily as fun sometimes but for your career development the just accidental conversation that you’re going to have with somebody in the hallway and the spontaneousness of the thoughts that that might give you and the face time with prospective bosses, the mentorship, that is all lost in the Zoom-driven remote world.
And maybe we’re just dinosaurs that need to adjust to reality but I really see for young people particularly the need to be face to face.
EISENSTAT: I could not agree more. I see it amongst my employees, too. I see who thrives and who struggles and coming in—I’m a hybrid. I work from home half the time and I go in half the time so I appreciate that I have both options.
But I’m way more productive when I’m in person and I enjoy the fact that I get to have those serendipitous—is that the right word?
EISENSTAT: Interactions. So I could not agree more.
WARE: We’ve got about three minutes to go. I have a question that I want to ask that I think is a good follow-up and then we’ll take one virtual, and then I’ll put it over to you to take either question or no question or both questions or any other concluding thoughts and we’ll finish there.
So, Rebecca, you’re a lawyer.
WEINER: Mmm hmm.
EISENSTAT: I am not a lawyer.
WARE: Yaël, you spoke about going to do a master’s at SAIS. Can you briefly talk about education in your work, how valuable it is? Whether you did that before your service, how easy it is to get out and come back in and just on—I guess it’s on the question of specializations. Should students be thinking about—young people be thinking about, yeah, I need to get my master’s or law school or Ph.D. before I go in?
Virtual question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Elliot Ji.
Q: Hello. Thank you so much for our panelists for your inspiring stories. My name is Elliot Ji. I’m a Ph.D. candidate at the department of politics at Princeton.
I wanted to ask you guys a question about, you know, potential challenges that students who are candidates of immigrant background would face in joining the intelligence community. One major advantage that I believe the U.S. intel community has is that we have students who are linguistically and culturally familiar within their country and they may have grown up there and they have American citizenship and so they are qualified to work in this field.
Do you see any challenges or obstacles that they face because they have—perhaps there are unique advantages and there are unique vulnerabilities to some of these challenges that intel officers will face.
Thank you so much.
EISENSTAT: I could answer that one pretty quickly. Totally different from the sort of federal CIA standpoint. That is one of the biggest advantages and challenges. I would be lying if I said that the more sort of internationally diverse your background is the harder your security clearances become but, yet, the more attractive candidate you are, and I don’t know if that circle has been squared.
I know it was really tough for me. My mother is of a different nationality and there is no question that that—that was touch and go whether I’d get my security clearances.
So I don’t want to sugarcoat that. I think that is a challenge and, yet, to your point we cannot have the skill sets that we need if we’re not willing to understand that that comes from all over the world. I don’t have the perfect answer on that. It is a challenge.
As far as education, so having had my short stint in the tech world where it’s very cool to not want to finish your education I would do anything to have that time again to—so I went to SAIS very close after undergrad so I was one of the younger people there because at SAIS you’re really supposed to work for a few years before you go.
I do wish I’d worked for a few years before I went. I think I would have been more grounded in exactly what I was trying to get out of the education. But having those few years to really explore what you want to explore and do as much as you can it’s invaluable.
Could I tell you that everything I learned at SAIS somehow served me in my career afterwards? No, I couldn’t. I will say that being part of that network certainly is a good thing as well. But I—it is very hard, though, to leave your career and go back to school. You did it so you probably have better thoughts on that.
I have always wanted to go back for my Ph.D. Maybe I’ll do it now. I still haven’t done it. Still time. I loved law school. Law school trained me how to think. It trained me—I mean, substantively there is a lot of overlap between at least certain elements of law school and what I do every day and it gave me appreciation for the law and the giant responsibility of enforcing it. But more than that it taught me how to think critically in a structured, dynamic, but disciplined way and it exposed me to an amazing network of dear friends and colleagues.
So I totally encourage it. It certainly isn’t necessary for our line of work but I think what you guys have in front of you is a set of amazing experiences that you don’t need to be locked into. You can take things where you want to go.
But the main takeaway is to keep your minds open and remember that this is really about having fun and being fulfilled. It isn’t necessarily about climbing the ladder or achieving the benchmarks because those will come along the way in places that you least expect them to.
WARE: Wonderful. Well, please note that the video and transcript of this briefing will be posted on our website here at CFR. For those of you in person enjoy the reception. Thank you for today’s session. Please join me in thanking our wonderful speakers. (Applause.)