A Conversation with Security Professional Sina Beaghley
08 May 2016
Sina Beaghley is a senior international/defense policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Prior to RAND, she worked in the federal government for 12 years where she developed and implemented national security and counterterrorism policies.
Fletcher Security Review (FSR): We are excited to have you here talking about intelligence, security and privacy. We also want to know a little bit more about you as a person. You have had an interesting career, so we would like to walk through some of that. You graduated from the Elliott School at George Washington [University]. When you graduated you were going to the Pentagon, correct?
Sina Beaghley (Beaghley): Yes… But actually I went to DHS [Department of Homeland Security] before I went to the Pentagon.
FSR: What did you imagine for your career at that point?
Beaghley: So when I left GW, I didn’t have a very clear sense of what my career was going to look like with the federal government. All I knew was that I wanted to work on national security issues, and I knew I wanted to have some kind of focus on counter-terrorism issues. And I knew that I wanted to do it from an international perspective.
Beyond that, I didn’t have a clear vision. I knew in my last year of grad school that I had a decision to make. I was fortunate enough to have been accepted into the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) program, but I also had gone through the Foreign Service route and had an offer as a political officer in the Foreign Service. So I really had to think hard about which of those qualities I ultimately wanted to focus on first. Was it the broader foreign affairs side of my interests or was it really delving into the security side more narrowly and deeply? In the Foreign Service, as you know, you tend to start out working some consular issues, generally and some broader topic areas—and then can transition into more an area of focus. So it could take 5-10 years to really work on the national security issues that I was hoping to work on. In the end, that’s how the Presidential Management Fellowship won out for me, because I was accepted into the program in the Office of the Security of Defense. It gave me an immediate opportunity to work on the national security issues that I was most interested in, largely in the counter-terrorism and special operations area.
FSR: You had some very interesting details in your PMF. Can you talk about some of those? Were did you start and how did you migrate through, eventually to outside the Pentagon?
Beaghley: Yes, absolutely. Again, I was very lucky in that I came into the Pentagon and I came in fully cleared. So, with that it opened up a lot of different rotational opportunities for me right from the get-go. I didn’t have to wait for a clearance. So my first rotation in the Pentagon was actually in the Joint Staff J3 Special Operations Directorate. It was at a time when what was then the “Global War on Terrorism,” as you can imagine, was quite prominent on the minds of policymakers. This was when Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense and he was really looking at how you posture special operations around the globe and creating authorities and an architecture to be able to do that. So, I was in the Special Operations Directorate at that time and was able to help process that, influence that, and see from the Joint Staff side of things—the military side of things—how that process worked. Later in my career I worked on the policy side of things and got to see the other side.
After the tour on the joint staff, I rotated to a few other places within the Pentagon. I did a rotation in the Office of Legislative Affairs, so I had interactions with Congress on the Senate side, the House side, and with senior leadership in the Pentagon, as they would be called over for hearings. I helped DOD [Department of Defense] leaders prepare for hearings and meetings, and liaised with Congressional and Senate staffers. I also did a rotation within OSD-Policy—the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy—in the Northern Gulf Directorate. At that time, that was in the middle of the Iraq War and I was the Iran-Iraq desk officer. So it was quite an interesting time to be doing those things, and especially be in the Pentagon just a year or two into the war and see some of the issues they were facing.
I did a rotation at European Command as well and wrote their counter narco-terrorism strategy at the time. This was when European Command [EUCOM] was both Europe and Africa, so before the creation of AFRICOM [Africa Command]. And finally, I was also able to do a rotation at the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC], which had just been set up and was a very new entity. After 9-11, with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act there was a transition from the Terrorism Threat Integration Center to the National Counterterrorism Center, which was bigger and had a broader mission. There was a whole new element of the Center that was created, which was the planning arm—the Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning. It was a new experiment in government coordination, so I was able to rotate over there and, later in my career, I actually hired on there.
FSR: So you got to see the creation of the Marine Special Operations Command when you were in the J3; you got to bear witness to the start of the Iraq War from OSD-Policy; and you got to see some very interesting things going on in OSD-Legislative Affairs when there were major issues going on that you had to attend to. So timing was very important in this case, and very much on your side?
Beaghley: It was. Although, when I think about things, there is so much going on in the world right now that someone could have another parallel two years and have just as broad and unique of an experience because it’s just one thing after another in international affairs and national security. But certainly… especially focusing on a counterterrorism portfolio…that was a time where this was a growth area in the Pentagon as capability was building up.
FSR: So, from what you’ve said, your career has encompassed a lot of functional work, but you have worked in some specific regions that are inherently diverse. You had EUCOM, which was Africa and Europe. Even on the African continent, the amount of diversity there is awesome. But you are not a regional expert. How did you learn to recognize how much information specific to these regions you needed in order to do the work that you were doing? How did you balance this?
Beaghley: So, key to any job is figuring out what the requirements are and what the capabilities are that you need to accomplish the role. I have generally come at policymaking from a more functional approach, and my academic background reflects that. But, as you delve into those issues, you can’t deal with those functional issues without understanding the regional context where most of them ultimately come to bear. That is certainly the case in the counterterrorism problem set, but is also the case in the cyber side of things. So, as a functionally focused person, it is important to understand the strategic context of what the regional dynamics are in specific countries and areas of the world—and what solutions might work to address the functional issue you are handling, tailored to that region. To do this, it is necessary to surround yourself with the regional capabilities, talent, and expertise that exist within government to supplement any functional planning and strategies you are developing. So, really—if you are working functional issues—it is imperative to build relationships with other staff who do focus regionally to really come up with a solid plan that is based in geographic reality.
For example, when I was at the National Counterterrorism Center I was the chief for Near East and Africa planning—a broad portfolio. So you had to—by virtue of being there and working on counterterrorism issues—have a good depth of regional understanding. But when we needed it, we would partner with elements at State Department, the Pentagon, and even intelligence counterparts within NCTC who focused regionally to be able to bring all those pieces together…
FSR: Thanks you very much. So a year ago, you made a big [career] change: you left government service after 12 years to work for the RAND Corporation. What motivated that transition and how did your move to RAND fit into your long-term career plans?
Beaghley: That transition was motivated, in part, by me being at a point of satisfaction with the arc that my career in government had taken and wanting a new, different challenge outside of government where I could continue to leverage what I had learned to further policy-making. In government, I had worked a number of different portfolios that tended to be more crisis management and crisis oriented portfolios, whether it was cyber issues, counterterrorism issues or crisis response. So coming to the RAND Corporation allowed me to take that strategic step back, to take everything I had learned and applied in government and think about what were my lessons learned. I wanted to look at the challenges that my colleagues in government faced, but to look at them from an objective, non-governmental view, where I don’t have a dog in that fight. I waned to be able to say objectively, “Here are some strategic options – informed by research – for you to consider.” I think there is also an independence that is afforded here too. Sometimes when you are in a bureaucratic structure and from a particular department or agency, you have a perception or a particular area that you are supposed to advocate—understandably, because you are representing that department of agency. You don’t have to have that predicament—or potential bias—when you are outside of government.
So what I like about being at the RAND Corporation is being able to take that step back, to look at issues objectively—certainly from a non-partisan basis. But I also like that I am able to focus on a few of the key substantive areas that interest me, and I’m not sort of pigeon-holed into any one of them, as part of a particular office in a particular agency. I can have a broader portfolio. At the same time, I can more narrowly focus on what I am really interested in researching. I have focused on three key areas. One is counterterrorism and special forces planning, training and policy. One is cyber strategy and cyber policy, particularly in the environment we find ourselves in now with increasing breaches and privacy concerns. And one is on the intelligence side of things, including counter-intelligence, leaks, unauthorized disclosures, government secrecy and particularly what the technological environment, privacy environment, and global environment mean for how the government will handle secrets and its secrecy paradigm moving into the future.
FSR: So, you’ve walked through part of your career, and you’ve had a lot of change, but you’ve largely worked within these three “bins” of work. Can you walk us through the calculus that led to your decision to move from DHS to DOD to NCTC and then to NSC? You’ve talked about your movement to RAND, but prior to that there was some movement, but always within the national security space.
Beaghley: From the Department of Homeland Security, I had a fellowship with the Science and Technology Directorate. It was a fantastic exposure both to the technical and to the research side of government, but it also focused a lot on domestic issues because Homeland Security is obviously focused on the “homeland.” So, in transitioning to the Pentagon, my interest was to transition my focus into international affairs and international security issues. I was able to do that through the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) program and then in the OSD-Policy organization. There I was tremendously fortunate to work on really interesting policy issues that actually impacted not only national policymaking, but in some cases the war fighter on the ground... It was a fantastic experience for me working that close to the military personnel who are out in the field conducting the military operations that our policy was meant to both guide and enable.
I moved to the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC] from the Pentagon and OSD because I was at the point in my career when I wanted to focus more deeply on counterterrorism issues. At the Pentagon I was able to handle a number of different issues and worked broader policy issues on the cyber front and in public diplomacy, but I really wanted to focus on counterterrorism issues. I was lucky enough in my last year and a half at OSD Policy to be able to do an operational rotation to Balad, Iraq with a special operations task force executing the counterterrorism mission. While I was there, it just renewed my passion, my interest, and my focus on working on counterterrorism issues and it really motivated me to do everything I could to continue to support that mission when I got back from that deployment. So, I returned back to OSD, but at that point—having been at NCTC before—I was looking at the openings there to be able to continue my focus on counterterrorism issues.
I was offered the opportunity to become the Chief of Near East and Africa Counterterrorism Planning and stayed on there for more than 4 years. Really what kept me at NCTC was the mission, the import of what we were doing—it was certainly very dynamic. But there was a sense that you were pulling together to try to bring the levers of government to make an impact in a particular region against a particular terrorist group… Two months after I got there was when the Underwear Bombing happened in 2009, when Umar Farouq Abdul Mutalib attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas day. So that event just added to the sense of importance of what we were doing not just overseas, but really brought it quite literally home. I had a really rewarding tour there working with the intelligence community, the policy community, and navigating the interagency bureaucracy that you often encounter in Washington. I also had a phenomenal team working for me – and that I was working for – that really created a great environment for productivity and making a difference.
I left NCTC to go to the National Security Council [NSC] Staff, and it really was - it a next logical step. At NCTC, I was working as part of an interagency coordination mechanism and the NSC is the pinnacle of interagency coordination. It is where all of the interagency dynamics come together in support of the National Security Council decision-making. So I as very interested to see things from that optic—as strategic as you get—in government. But it was also an opportunity to help navigate what was a very dynamic and difficult time in government, to deal with a real challenge that the government was facing in the policymaking realm. I was detailed to the NSC to help coordinate the response to the unauthorized disclosures by Edward Snowden regarding U.S. intelligence capabilities and information. My responsibilities included bringing together the intelligence community, the policy community, staff focused on economic issues and privacy issues to try to wrestle with the challenges that the government was facing—and make hard policy choices —in response to those various disclosures.
FSR: You’ve had some tremendous mentors in your career. What are the most salient points you’ve learned about mentorship and professional networks during your career? What have they taught you and what have you tried to pass on and actually expand on in your own career?
Beaghley: had that wasn’t in some way attributable to the professional networks that I had built over time, certainly in moving from one position to another… I think the individuals that you work with, the networks that you build, become not just your professional contacts, but your colleagues and your advocates. On the networking side of things outside of government you are not only referring to individuals but the virtual, space as well…connections through social media platforms and LinkedIn… For example, I may never have met someone in person, but because I am connected to them through someone else, they approach and you may be able to make a connection and build a work area together.
So, there are virtual and in-person professional networks that I think are so valuable for people to build and maintain throughout their career because you don’t know the career path that your career will take. Increasingly, you don’t find as many people who spend 20-25 years in one department or agency, but they’ve are now tending to move between departments or agencies and in the interagency realm.
On the mentoring side of things, that is something I have certainly been the beneficiary of. I have had several mentors who have been at all levels of government, working all different issues. But the key characteristic between all of them is the desire to pass on what they have learned to make a difference, to make things better and easier for the next generation to achieve…and to lessen the learning curve… One of my best, most admirable mentors was a senior defense official focused on special operations issues. I remember—this was when I was in my second year at the Pentagon—him saying to me, “I’m going to do everything I can to help you. And I’m going to do that because you are talented, you are capable and the department needs you. All I ask in return is that you pay it forward, you do the same thing and continue that tradition of mentorship and provide those same benefits for people that need them and will benefit from them.” … So I have tried to do the same thing for people that I work with—with younger people coming into the government—but also with students. I do this in order to be able to shed some light onto the mysteries of government, what these jobs are like, and just be able to provide some guidance and anything that can benefit them from my own experience.
FSR: You also have some teaching experience, correct? Could you talk about that a little bit?
Beaghley: As an adjunct professor I’ve taught for the last couple years at the University of Maryland, co-teaching with a colleague of mine. The program I teach in is very focused on giving students a sense of what Washington D.C. career opportunities are. It focuses on and highlights different jobs and different program areas that student can potentially be exposed to. We bring guest speakers into our class as well, so students learn from the real, practical experience of the guest speakers on various issues—cyber issues, counterterrorism issues, issues of intelligence and privacy. In their second semester, students do an internship or do a practical application of what they learn in their first semester in our class. It’s a great program for students. As I said to my students, I went to undergrad at the University of San Diego and just being in San Diego you don’t have the exposure to Washington DC and policymaking day in and day out. So I say to my students that I would have given anything for an opportunity like this, so they need to make sure that they really take advantage of it… because there is so much they can learn from the guest speaker’s experiences that puts them that much farther ahead of the game from someone coming from somewhere who doesn’t have that access.
FSR: [In the security and intelligence community] we get to do some really interesting things. We get to have some experiences that people would love to have. What are some of the most interesting experiences that you’ve had working in government service? And what is that one thing you wish you could have done?
Beaghley: The two interesting things I have done are, respectively, at the most tactical level I worked in government, and at the most strategic. For the most tactical, it was deploying with the Special Operations Task Force for four months in Balad, Iraq. Seeing day in and day out the missions that are conducted by these military professionals—multiple missions a night—putting their lives at risk. The pace is just grueling. It puts things in perspective and the small things that you worry about are nothing compared to the life and death challenges that these military personnel face multiple times in a night. That was by far one of the most impactful and rewarding experiences for me—seeing what some of our military personnel dedicate to the mission and to service.
At the strategic level, my most interesting experience was working at the White House during the Edward Snowden disclosures response. As a policy wonk, it was fascinating to see the senior officials at the highest levels really wrestling with a true challenge. They were really doing policymaking - creating policy, making reforms, and evaluating how we balance things as a nation and what we value. How do we balance what our privacy is and what restrictions should be put on government with the need to enable government agencies to protect the American people and give them the authority they need to do that? So it was a fascinating to be a part of it all, at such a historic time.
On the question of what I wish I had done, let me think. Apart from taking a ride on Air Force One, which some of my colleagues got to do. Apart from riding with the Secretary of Defense on his plane, which some of my colleagues also got to do [laughs]… Honestly, something I wish I had the chance to do, was land on an aircraft carrier.
FSR: But you’ve been on a carrier for a Tiger Cruise!
Beaghley: I’ve never landed on an aircraft carrier, and obviously have never shot off of one. My career is not done [laughs], so maybe I’ll have another chance to make this happen. But that is one thing that is on my wish list.
FSR: I have one final question for you based on something you have been repeating. I want to make sure it is something that a lot of people might not understand. When you talk about the intelligence community and the policy community, you talk about them as two completely separate entities that must work together. Who are the actors in these communities and how do they work together? What is the fundamental difference between these communities and what they are doing?
Beaghley: It’s a really interesting question, and one that came to the fore so strongly in the response to the Edward Snowden issue. Ultimately, the intelligence community—those that collect intelligence to be able to feed into policy and decision-making—collect information overseas to see what the environment is like, maybe what populations are like and what political decisions are going into decision-making. All of that information is fed up into the people who make decisions about what the U.S. government should be doing: its strategy, its policy decisions about operations. So the better informed those policymakers are, the better able they are to at least consider what options are the most viable.
I talk about them separately because you don’t want policymakers influencing the intelligence community’s judgments… influencing their objectivity. What you do want is policymakers and the policy community telling the intelligence community what their needs are, what they doesn’t know, what requirements the intelligence community can be filling to feed into the policy knowledge base, ultimately to improve decision-making and fill in gaps regarding a particular area, issue, or organization. There is a close relationship that has to happen between the two in order to feed intelligence into policymaking and feed those policymaker requirements of the intelligence community, but there is a clear line that has to be retained to ensure the intelligence community’s judgments are not being influenced by a policy desire or a political objective. But you still have to be able to have those lines of communication operating between the communities because of the symbiotic relationship: one simply cannot function without the other fulfilling its functions. So in the end, that’s what makes a more effective, efficient national security establishment—when you have that relationship in place and you have that two-way dynamic and communication working to the best of its ability.
FSR: I am very pleased you could join us, and thank you for your time.