Obama Taps Lisa Monaco as Next White House Counterterrorism Adviser

The top national security official at the Justice Department, Monaco has also been rumored as a candidate for FBI Director.

President Obama has selected Lisa Monaco as his next homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, replacing John Brennan, who has been nominated as CIA Director. 

Monaco currently serves as the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the National Security Division at the Justice Department. She is a seasoned attorney who began her career as a federal prosecutor in Washington, DC, and rose to the senior ranks of Justice and the FBI. In 2009, Monaco became Eric Holder’s principal associate deputy attorney general. Prior to that, she was the longest-serving chief of staff to FBI Director Robert Mueller, a testament to her skill, stamina, and Mueller’s confidence in her abilities, according to those who know her. 

Monaco, who was confirmed by the Senate for her current position at Justice, has been on the rumored short list to replace Mueller, whose term ends this summer. It’s not immediately clear what today’s new appointment does to her chances. On the one hand, she will presumably be working closely with Obama on matters of the highest national security priority and sensitivity. The two do not have a long history of working together day to day, as Obama did with Brennan, who was also a campaign adviser in 2008. Proximity to the Oval Office would give Monaco the ultimate stage on which to audition for the directorship of the FBI.  

On the other hand, it could prove difficult to find a replacement for Monaco less than a year from now, as Mueller is stepping down. Brennan has been indispensable to Obama’s program of targeted killings and other national security priorities. It’s hard to see the position of counterterrorism adviser being a temporary stop over on the way to something bigger. 

Those who know Monaco describe her as non-partisan, tireless, and a skilled attorney. She worked for Janet Reno in the 1990s and later served on the Justice Department’s Enron Task Force, overseeing the prosecution of executives from the failed energy company. For that work, she received the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service, the Justice Department’s highest award.

“Lisa is a terrific choice. She has demonstrated herself to be the consummate public servant,” said Fran Townsend, who was counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush. “She has served in both national security legal and policy roles. She has proven she has both the experience and judgment to provide the President with wise counsel.” 

David Kris, who preceded Monaco has head of the NSD, says, “She has got the experience and the skills to take on this very challenging job and do it very well.” 

The targeted killing program, and the attendant use of drones in countries where the United States is not at war, has become a central component of the counterterrorism adviser’s portfolio. It is tempting to view the appointment of a career federal attorney as an attempt by the White House to signal some new deference for stronger legal guidelines on the use of drones. 

However, those who know Brennan have described him as a staunch proponent of “intelligence under law,” and he has reportedly been instrumental in crafting clearer guidelines about the use of lethal force. So appointing Monaco perhaps should not be seen as a rebuke of Brennan, or as a stronger embrace of the law than administration officials believe they have already shown.

Monaco’s appointment is unlikely to satisfy critics of targeted killings. Yesterday, the United Nations announced an investigation into the use of drones by the U.S. 

Monaco has been in charge of the NSD since July 2011. She is a graduate of Harvard University and earned her law degree from the University of Chicago, where Obama was once a professor.