Waking to the Threat Matrix
How Juan Zarate ’97 survived four years inside the ultimate pressure cooker
For the last four years, Juan Zarate ’97 has not gotten very much sleep. As the deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, Zarate spent countless hours poring over the National Counterterrorism Center’s threat matrix.
The information in those documents—dozens of potential plots, organized according to imminent danger—would be enough to cause most people to panic. Yet, Zarate, who reviewed updates first thing in the morning and right before going to sleep each night, dealt with it all with a sense of calm.
From the White House, Zarate led the U.S. government’s counterterrorism community, ensuring that suspected threats were addressed and longer-term strategies were developed and implemented. “One part of my job,” he explained coolly, “was to make sure that the national security adviser and the president were aware of the serious tactical and strategic threats that were evolving and what we were doing about them.”
In June 2005, Zarate became the fifth White House terrorism czar since President Bush took office in January 2001—a sign that the storms of this job were not easily weathered. Yet, he not only “rode it out” until Jan. 20 of this year; he flourished in what he calls the “job of a lifetime.”
Zarate got his first taste of terrorism cases shortly after law school, when, through the Justice Department’s honors program, he worked in the Terrorism and Violent Crimes section, assisting Patrick Fitzgerald ’85 and the team investigating the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya as well as assisting in the investigation of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole—attacks perpetrated by al-Qaida.
In 2001, when the Bush administration was just taking office, Zarate was offered a job in the Treasury Department, managing the international dimensions of its enforcement work. Three weeks into it, the Sept. 11 attacks happened. Suddenly Treasury was given a mandate to drive a campaign against financing of terrorism, focused on al-Qaida. Zarate became an important part of the leadership team.
By 2003, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, “much of the classic Treasury enforcement functions were gutted,” Zarate said. In charge of the remaining parts of the department’s domestic and international enforcement and regulatory work after the reorganization—such as economic sanctions and asset forfeiture programs—he was “left to recraft what the mission looked like.”
Zarate and his team’s work led to the creation of Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, “fashioning,” he said, “a new way of thinking about how to use financial power” to influence issues of national security.
After almost four years at Treasury, Zarate was asked to become the deputy to then National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. This time, he had a much larger portfolio, coordinating the government’s counterterrorism strategy and efforts against other transnational threats, such as maritime security, piracy, hostage-takings, organized crime and gangs. He continued to serve as the White House’s threat adviser.
“The most troubling part of the job, actually, is what you don’t know,” Zarate said. “Often you see in the threat advisories, ‘The U.S. government does not have specific information about a particular attack or a site.’”
To try to fill in the gaps in intelligence and to get ahead of the enemy, Zarate said he spent a lot of his time reading between the strategic and tactical lines—trying to fit together a series of factors and conditions that might at first seem unrelated.
Even though this sounds like an international search for the proverbial needle in the haystack, Zarate said that there is a much greater understanding of terrorism than there was immediately after Sept. 11, and that there are factors, such as certain geographic conditions or information related to personalities within terrorist organizations, that lead to the identification of a threat.
Inside the White House, Zarate worked to change the government’s approach to fighting terrorism. The new strategy, as detailed in a 2006 report, took into direct account, he said, that we are engaged in “an ideological battle against a global movement,” but attempted to shift how that battle is waged. “That entailed starting to do everything possible to empower credible voices in Muslim communities around the world, to help network them, and to support countermovements to violent extremism.”
This “reshaping” of strategy has given the new administration a “leg up” on counter-terrorism efforts, said Zarate, who resigned his post in January and is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and serves as senior national security consultant and analyst for CBS News. “The new president has a huge opportunity to reframe … the question of whether or not Muslims around the world … perceive the U.S. to be at war with Islam.”
Despite all he accomplished in the policy arena, Zarate said one of his happiest moments came on July 2, 2008, when three American hostages, along with 12 othersincluding Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, were rescued from the jungle, where they had been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia for more than five years. Zarate, who served as the White House coordinator for U.S. support to the rescue, said, “I was literally crying because I was so happy.”