A Conversation with Michelle Malvesti

By Eleanor Runde

A Jackson Institute Senior Fellow and counterterror expert discusses gender, media, national security.

Michelle Malvesti (Courtesy Jackson Institute).

In your experience, how has the role of women changed in national security over the past twenty years?

MM: One challenge in properly answering this question is the definitional problem of what constitutes “national security.” Through the years, and certainly over the past decade, our conceptions of national security have greatly expanded to include a range of non-traditional issues, including natural disasters, the depletion of natural resources, and transnational organized crime. Accordingly, it can be challenging to readily and easily define which positions are national security positions. That said, let’s look at women in one national security arena, the Intelligence Community, and one organization in particular, the CIA. According to a 2013 unclassified report issued by the Agency, women composed 38 percent of the CIA’s total workforce in 1980; today, women compose upwards of 46 percent. The trends are positive, but women are not equally represented in the leadership ranks: the same report also showed that women compose 31 percent of the Senior Intelligence Service officers. There has been greater recognition that this is a problem, however, and I fully encourage and support the efforts of the leadership who, as noted in the report, are developing institutional and structural reforms—such as incentivizing alternative career tracks and implementing flexible work arrangements – in order to achieve greater equality and diversity in the senior leadership positions.

Let’s look at women in the armed services. Today, women compose approximately 15 percent of the US military, and their formal roles certainly have expanded and evolved, particularly after the first Gulf War. Over the past twenty years, women have come to fly combat aircraft, to serve on submarines, and to participate in certain ground operations. In 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the rescission of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women. By 2016, we will know if the services will continue to request that some positions remain closed.

Regardless, women historically have been present on battlefields, and they have fought and died in service to the nation. I look forward to seeing what these women will continue to accomplish.

Finally, let me also note that when I was serving as the Senior Director for Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council staff, I had the privilege to work for two strong, incredibly hard working, and highly accomplished woman at the White House: National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend. In fact, my office dual-reported to both women. Prior to that time, most of the senior leaders in the organizations in which I had worked had been men. So, over the course of my career, I have seen women ascend to the highest levels of the national security apparatus. And I recognize and appreciate that I have been the beneficiary of opportunities that have flowed from a generation of national security women who have carved a path for me to follow.

TYG: Is it frustrating to be defined, first and foremost, as a “female” national security expert? Do you feel that the cultural focus on your gender has distracted from the achievements and accomplishments of you and your female colleagues in national security?

MM: Frustrating to be characterized as a female national security expert? On one level, no. While I would certainly debate the use of the word “expert” in this case, I fully recognize and appreciate that in an overwhelming majority of instances, the portrayal of me as a “female national security expert” is meant to be flattering and to connote accomplishment. Yet on another level, such terminology highlights not the fact that I am woman, but rather that I am not a man. This is a distinction with a difference. When we add the “female” adjective, it serves to highlight that it is unexpected to see a woman in the senior ranks of this field. And while it is true that the number of women serving at the highest levels of national security remains disappointing, the use of that particular terminology can, in certain circumstances, serve to reinforce social assumptions or expectations that men are more properly or naturally geared to operate in the national security field.


TYG: There is a clear public conception that Americans working in national security are forced to live on the fringes of society because of the sensitive nature of their work. After the release of Zero Dark Thirty in 2013, you argued in Forbes and on CNN about how dangerous disclosure of confidential information can be. To what extent do you think operatives in national security are excluded from mainstream society?

MM: The highly sensitive work of most national security professionals does place these public servants outside the American mainstream in various respects. Yet in many instances, this positioning on the fringe can bring added scrutiny and increased public attention that actually forces them into the mainstream. Since you raised Zero Dark Thirty, let’s look at US Special Operations Forces, or SOF, as a case in point. SOF are trained to operate in hostile and denied territories, often under conditions of significant political and physical risk. In going where others cannot go and doing what others cannot do (as is often said), SOF truly are operating at the fringe, at the outer limits. Yet the clandestine nature of their work and the strategic significance of their missions have triggered a thirst in the public to know ever more about the secretive world of SOF. This, in part, drives sensationalized media accounts, unauthorized books, and blockbuster films about Special Operations. Those in the mainstream might think this increased visibility honors those serving in SOF, but in some instances it can actually lead to harmful repercussions.

TYG: What types of repercussions?

MM: When warriors who operate primarily in the shadows….at least a handful of ways, as noted in the Forbes and CNN pieces you referenced, are thrust into the public spotlight—especially when they do not seek the spotlight—it has the potential to produce inadvertent and haphazard risks in at least a handful of ways.

First, sensitive and even classified information is at risk of being exposed. This is of particular concern for unauthorized media accounts. When we shine light on tactics, we constrain the ability of these forces to operate optimally in the future. If identities are exposed in the course of production, we place their lives and those of their families at risk. Second, public attention— which is often focused on one specific unit, individual, or mission to the exclusion of many others—can ferment internal divisions that can lead to resentment. Public accounts can also lead to competing claims of personal credit, as we have witnessed in the recent public sparring over who shot Bin Laden. Internal discord can degrade the trust and cohesion that are necessary for collective action, which lies at the heart of SOF’s success. Third, excessive accolades can also unintentionally increase the allure or appeal of using these forces among policymakers, including for missions better done by other forces or which divert SOF from focusing on missions they are uniquely qualified to execute. SOF are already stretched incredibly thin. While impressive in their capabilities, these forces do not have unlimited capacity, and we must guard against their over- or misuse. And finally, mainstream media books and films tend to brandish highly dramatic and ostensibly glamorous operations, such as rescuing hostages, killing terrorists, or undertaking other edge-our-seat actions. This is understandable in the vein of sporty entertainment. Yet these exceptionally narrow and often violent depictions of force undermine public understanding of the full spectrum of military capabilities that exist in service to the nation.

TYG: Considering the substantial pressure on security organizations to disclose information to the public and the ease of sharing with modern technology, is it still possible for American security organizations to operate entirely on the fringes of society? How much responsibility does the public have for maintaining the secrecy of these organizations?

MM: No, I do not think it is possible for the national security apparatus of the United States to operate entirely on the fringes of society. Even more important, I do not think it should operate entirely on the fringes. Let’s take, for instance, the US intelligence community, especially in the counterterrorism arena. The government has a responsibility to apprise the American people of the terrorist threats confronting the nation and of its strategy for deterring or defeating those threats. These issues cannot be relegated to the fringe but must be incorporated into our mainstream debate and dialogue. Admittedly, there will be some specific, highly detailed information that must remain out of the public domain, such as operational details that might compromise the effectiveness of a mission, or the identities and locations of operators, agents, or sources. But we cannot present a false choice between security and transparency. Just this past summer, the 9/11 Commissioners called on national security leaders to strengthen their communication with the public. The words of the Commissioners implicitly give the sense that they, too, are aware of a leery divide between the general public and those working at the fringe to keep us safe. Let me read directly from one of their recommendations: “In this era of heightened skepticism, platitudes will not persuade the public. Leaders should describe the threat and the capabilities they need with as much granularity as they can safely offer.” In my opinion, a democratic society should not be cut off from either its military or the larger security apparatus, and a public that is well-versed on issues of national security can make more informed decisions and serve as a wellspring of resiliency.

Eleanor Runde ‘17 is an Ethics, Politics & Economics major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at eleanor.runde@yale.edu.