Counterterrorism adviser Monaco is Obama’s key player on Syria

Counterterrorism adviser Monaco is Obama’s key player on Syria
© Greg Nash

Lisa Monaco isn’t a household name, even in the Beltway, but she’s been a key player in President Obama’s drive to win congressional approval to arm and train Syria rebel groups in the fight against Islamic militants.

As Obama’s homeland security and counter terrorism adviser, the 46-year-old has provided substantive expertise on Capitol Hill about ISIS’s threat to U.S. interests, hitting the phones hard to break down the specifics and convince lawmakers to back the administration’s plan for taking on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

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Over the last few weeks, she’s juggled calls with members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, congressional leadership and agency heads, and international partners, in addition to meeting with President Obama every day for advice on the Presidential Daily Briefing.

When President Obama traveled to Tampa, Fla., to attend a briefing at Central Command on Wednesday, Monaco not only accompanied him on the trip but sat at the table for the discussion.

There are few people in every single meeting on ISIS. Monaco is one of them.

“She’s very mission focused,” said Kathy Ruemmler, the former White House counsel to Obama who left the West Wing earlier this year.  “What I mean by that is, if the mission is protecting U.S. persons, interests, the homeland, her interest is going to be what operationally we can do to best effectuate that mission.”

Ruemmler added that the counterterrorism czar is “very focused on substance” and what is the best approach.”

“She’s not concerned with optics,” said Ruemmler, who recommended Monaco for the job, along with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and CIA Director John Brennan. “It’s not that she’s insensitive about optics, but the first place she is going to go is substance.”

The House’s relatively easy approval of the Syrian aid language on Wednesday was evidence of the success in Monaco’s approach, even if she failed to convince every lawmaker she spoke with to back the president’s plan.

On Wednesday, for example, she was unsuccessful in winning the vote of Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

“We had a very sort of technical conversation about how this works operationally,” said Himes, who spoke to The Hill on his way to vote.

Himes said the White House — including Monaco — is doing a “great job addressing people’s concerns.”

Aides on the Hill say she has been a steady presence, serving as the White House’s connective tissue, especially when it comes to breaking down the specifics.

“She breaks it down in a way you can digest,” said one House aide, familiar with her efforts. “You can tell she knows what she’s talking about.”

Monaco, who began her career as a federal prosecutor in Washington, previously served as the assistant attorney general of the National Security Division at the Justice Department and as chief of staff to FBI Director Robert Mueller, before landing at the White House in the spring of 2013.

Shortly after her arrival, she was immediately thrown into work on the Boston Marathon bombings, where she was at the center of coordinating the response with the FBI. An official White House photo at the time shows Monaco briefing Obama on a couch in the Diplomatic Reception Room before he departed for a trip. Shortly thereafter, she was tasked with handling the aftermath of the NSA disclosures involving former contractor Edward Snowden.

When the execution of American journalist James Foley took place, it was Monaco who called Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic affairs, to explain what had happened, as he traveled with Obama to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., last month. 

And it was Monaco who worked with Department of Defense, in support of the failed and now public rescue operation of the American hostages in Syria in June. 

She has a weekly meeting dedicated to the security of the most at-risk embassies. She had to make the call for the increased deployments of personnel to protect embassies in Baghdad and Erbil in Iraq.  And she’s been talking to officials in Saudi Arabia and other Arab partners for weeks, Rhodes said, adding that her recent trip to Saudi Arabia “wasn’t out of the blue.”

“Everything from the security of our facilities in Iraq, to the rescue operation, to outreach with the families, to the development of the training and equipment mission, she’s had to look at every aspect of this challenge as it has evolved over the past several months,” Rhodes said. “She’s the one person who is at the nexus of all these things.”

Lately, the Newton, Mass., native, isn’t just dealing with ISIS, she also has her plate full with the Ebola outbreak, another issue dominating the headlines and one that falls squarely on her desk. She is also tasked with the handling of all natural disasters. 

White House aides say Monaco is usually one of the first people to come to work around 7 in the morning to toil in an office located in a White House basement with low ceilings and no windows. And she’s one of the last people to leave, usually around 10 or 11, and sometimes later. She’s also known to keep reading information in briefing binders well into the wee hours, only to do it all over again the following day. 

While Monaco has only been in Obama’s orbit for a year and a half, the president “trusts that she gives it to him straight,” Ruemmler said.

“Having the information given to you by someone you trust is critical,” she added.

Up until the final hours before the vote on Wednesday, Monaco continued to work the phones speaking to several lawmakers. After she talked to Himes, he told The Hill that he believes the administration is trying to be as transparent as possible with lawmakers.

“They’re being very upfront about what they know and who’s committed what,” he said. “They’re being very upfront about that. I think everybody understands this is a consequential vote and that it’s not a realm that lends itself to rhetoric.”