How I Got Here: Ellen Laipson

A conversation with
Ellen Laipson

Published
Apr 21, 2021

Apr 21, 2021 • by Ellen Laipson

Ellen Laipson 

  • Senior Director, National Security Council 

  • Vice Chair, National Intelligence Council 

  • President and CEO, Stimson Center 

  • Director of the Center for Security Policy Studies, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University 

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?  

By the time I was in fifth or sixth grade, I knew I wasn’t going to be Barbra Streisand or a ballerina. I considered being a senator. I worked on Ed Brooke’s campaign when I was in high school. But I learned quickly that I didn’t want to be on center stage, exposing myself as much as politicians do. I was drawn to international issues and did a high school exchange program in Israel, right after the Six-Day War. It was terrific, a transformative experience. I lived with two Israeli families, one a modest family in Upper Nazareth, the other an affluent family in Tel Aviv. Then I went to Cornell University and spent my junior year in France. Using mostly French and a little bit of Arabic, I worked on a research project comparing the integration of Moroccan Jews in France and Israel. It was a wonderful experience, greatly improved my French, got me into neighborhoods and homes in Paris that I would never have seen. 

What was your major?  

I was in something called the College Scholar Program, so I was allowed to create my own major. I moved between politics and cultural anthropology and threw in the Middle East. I took Medieval Arab History with Bibi Netanyahu’s father, Benzion. 

What was he like as a professor?  

Very pompous and patronizing.  

Did you ever tell Netanyahu you had studied with his father?  

No. [chuckle] 

What did you do after college?  

I ran a restaurant in the Worcester Art Museum with some friends, Cafe Pomodoro. It’s a beautiful small art museum in Massachusetts. I had taken a lot of AP classes and so had enough credits to graduate early and was thinking about the Peace Corps.  

Why did you leave the restaurant?  

As my father pointed out, I had zero interest in pricing things correctly. He would ask, “Why did you charge $1.00 for this and $1.50 for this?” and I’d say, “Oh, it just sounded right.” I loved the cooking, the people, the museum. But I discovered that I was missing the business gene and didn’t have a clue how to make money. 

How did you come to Washington?  

I started doing intensive Arabic at Georgetown while working part time. Eventually, I applied to SAIS [Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies], because a lot of the professors were practitioners. I found practical issues more interesting than conceptual ones and wasn’t drawn to the academic Ph.D. track. SAIS worked well for me. The Arabic studies were excellent, and I did a summer program in Tunisia that was very useful. In my second year, I applied for a fellowship on Capitol Hill, to work in a liberal Republican senator’s office. I didn’t get it, but the organizer of the competition came to me and said, “Look, you were just as good as the guy who did get it, so call Biden’s office—I know they’re looking for someone.” And that’s how I started working for Joe Biden. It was his first term as a senator. I wasn’t a Delaware groupie, so I didn’t exactly fit in. But I had two wonderful bosses: Paul Laudicina, who went on to become the head of [the management consulting firm] A.T. Kearney, and my first real professional mentor, Joyce Lasky Reed. She was quite a character, had lived all around the world. Biden knew he needed to fill in some of the gaps in his own education and learned about foreign policy and judicial issues from her. But she wasn’t particularly interested in the nitty-gritty of policy. 

What did you do?  

All the stuff a junior person does—research, correspondence. I had a small portfolio of my own, including veterans’ affairs. Delaware had a VA hospital doing facial reconstruction on soldiers who had been grossly disfigured in the Vietnam War. That was powerful, and Biden really cared. I also worked on legislation getting billions of dollars to the Philadelphia shipyard rather than Virginia—a rust belt versus sun belt victory for Biden and the Pennsylvania and New Jersey delegations. It was a great learning experience. 

Did you like working on the Hill?  

By my second year, I decided I wasn’t enough of a political animal. I was more comfortable on the research side. After seeing a notice on a bulletin board, I applied for a job as an analyst in Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the Congressional Research Service and landed a spot they had been about to give to somebody else. That was one of my great lucky breaks. 

What did you do at CRS?  

I came there in 1979 and stayed for 11 years, with a couple of little sojourns to the State Department along the way. I started as the lowest of three analysts doing the Middle East. My portfolio was the Maghreb, Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus, and I backed up Arab-Israeli issues. The senior analysts gleefully dumped the Cyprus folders in my lap when I arrived and said, “Over to you.” But the most profound impact on my experience came from the Iranian hostage crisis, which began within weeks of my starting.  

What does CRS do? 

CRS is the nonpartisan, nonpolitical research center for members of Congress. At the time, our work was considered proprietary and exclusive for members of Congress. Now, virtually all CRS products are available online. It started as a reference service staffed by librarians. Members could ask a technical question: get me a map of such and such a place, or the GDP of a country I’m going to visit. Over time, it expanded beyond reference to research. Our greatest impact came when a committee would task us to study a problem and produce a report. When Lee Hamilton was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, we did some really interesting, important work. He commissioned reports on disputes between the branches over the conduct of American foreign policy, recognition of the PRC [People’s Republic of China], sanctions against Rhodesia. In my second year, I did a report on the Turkish arms embargo. Again, just a great growth experience. 

Why would writing about the Turkish arms embargo be a great growth experience?  

I interviewed all the players involved, at the State Department and in Congress, on why they had such a profound disagreement. It was crystal clear that the executive branch will always put security first in its appreciation of Turkey, and Congress will care more broadly about issues such as human rights or how good a friend Turkey is in general. The Turks had intervened in Cyprus in the summer of ’74. The Nixon presidency was falling apart, and there was a crisis of legitimacy in the executive branch. And Congress, with a newly empowered Greek lobby, stepped in to fill the vacuum, saying we don’t trust the White House to make a wise choice right now. The embargo Congress imposed lasted four years, until Jimmy Carter lifted it in ’78. It was a serious foreign policy issue, and I got to become the in-house expert on it. There was a funny cartoon about the Chad analyst at the State Department sleeping at his desk and, boing, Qaddafi invades Chad—and suddenly, being the Chad expert is a big thing. Sometimes you get a break like that and are lucky enough to work on a crisis that gets you visibility. 

Was it frustrating doing nonpartisan research for partisan clients? 

On some issues, such as Arab-Israeli ones, it was definitely frustrating. I wrote a careful, clinical, almost encyclopedic paper on settlements, citing Israeli, Arab, U.S., and European views. I was scrupulously neutral. And I realized that Congress didn’t want to read the paper, because it was inconvenient. They didn’t really want to be experts on settlements; they wanted support for their predetermined political views. That was when I knew this chapter of my life was coming to a close. 

What did you do on your rotations at the State Department? 

The first was to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, where I worked on Turkey. I started two days before the 1980 coup. I had not even been read in yet to my full level of clearances and had to comment on the breaking situation. I wrote a piece saying the Turkish military are very unhappy but are not going to act at this time. Ten hours later, I turn on the radio and hear they kicked out Suleyman Demirel [the prime minister]. 

Did anybody yell at you for having gotten it wrong?  

I go to the State Department the next day, and they rush me into the morning meeting, and around the table are luminaries who had served in very senior positions in Turkey, like Phil Wilcox and Ron Spiers. They all started laughing when I walked in and said, “When we read your piece yesterday afternoon, we agreed with it, but we thought we would just wait, sit on it for a day.” So they hadn’t put it in the secretary’s book for that morning, and I was spared that ultimate embarrassment. But they were very gracious. They said it was a sound piece analytically—I had just gotten the timing wrong. 

Has your ability to predict things increased?  

I was in the intelligence community at the time of 9/11. I think we are capable of giving strategic warning. But despite huge amounts of effort and resources, you have to get really lucky to be able to say it’s going to happen tomorrow at 9 AM. Tactical warning is the hard part. You can have the right sources, identify the right threat, monitor it closely, and still only rarely do you get that last little piece of information about exactly when and where something is going to happen, with enough lead time to prevent it. 

What was your second stint at the State Department?  

I was a member of the Policy Planning Staff in ’86-’87, which was a blast. I gravitate to small offices that sit high in big institutions. That’s my niche. You don’t have a lot of power, but you get a great perspective on how institutions work. George Shultz was secretary. I was there when Iran-contra first broke and saw how completely distraught he was, the breakdown of trust between the State Department and the White House. I did North Africa and the Middle East in a very impressive group. Aaron Miller, Bob Einhorn, and Zal Khalilzad were there. Dick Solomon was the boss, and he and Shultz got along quite well. It was a very exciting time.  

How did you come to the National Intelligence Council [NIC]? 

I went back to CRS for another two years and was thinking about what to do next, when I was approached to be the national intelligence officer [NIO] for Near East and South Asia. I remember saying, “That’s crazy. I’m not qualified. That’s for a much more senior person.” But Fritz Ermarth, who was a political scientist from [the] RAND [Corporation], very generous-spirited, said, “We’re ready to try something different.” My predecessors had almost all been career intel officers from the operations side who had lived in the Arab world and were street smart about working with Arab intelligence services. But they were not analysts or writers. Ermarth let the pendulum swing all the way to hiring an analyst from the Library of Congress. It was pretty shocking, and I think a lot of people were looking for me to fail. Large bureaucracies don’t trust outsiders, and they don’t want it shown that non-guild members can do the job well. But then Saddam invaded Kuwait, and nobody had a chance to sabotage me, because we were all working too hard. 

Tell me about the Gulf War. 

Structurally, the decisions to go to war against Iraq in 1990 and 2003 look the same, but attitudinally, they were very different. With Bush 43, it was an extremely cynical exercise involving the misuse of intel. With Bush 41, it was the opposite. Working for the Bush-Baker-Scowcroft team [James Baker was secretary of state at the time, and Brent Scowcroft was George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser] was truly a peak experience. That administration was impeccable in terms of process, the quality of decision-making, and also in its use of intelligence. 

They saw the inevitability of using force by late 1990, before we analysts did. I thought Saddam might act rationally and withdraw when he saw how many troops we sent. But we now know Saddam thought he understood the American psyche, believed Colin Powell [then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] was traumatized by Vietnam and the country didn’t have an appetite for the use of force. He was in a self-validating, self-contained system, and no fresh information was coming in.  

Did Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait surprise you? 

I wasn’t inside the system when he invaded. The regional analysts were saying, “This is just coercion; it’s not the start of a full-scale war.” That’s also what we were being told by King Hussein [of Jordan], by [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak, and others in the region. “He’s bluffing. He’s not going to do it.” The warning analysts, in contrast, watching very carefully for what kinds of equipment was being moved where, predicted he was going to attack. But that was only in the last 72 hours, so the intel community did not give senior decision-makers much advance notice.  

Did you imagine Saddam might survive the war?  

Mainstream analytic thinking was that he was badly weakened and that given the history of Iraq, there was a reasonably strong chance his generals would turn against him. Maybe 30 percent, certainly less than 50 percent. We planted that idea in the minds of policymakers, and they took it as license to believe the postwar Iraq problem would take care of itself. 

How did you come to the National Security Council? 

I was NIO for three years. In 1993, Bruce Riedel and I switched places. He became NIO, and I took his job as director of Persian Gulf and South Asian affairs at the NSC.  

What was it like moving from intelligence to policy? 

We had a three-person directorate that covered the area from Morocco to Bangladesh. A very smart team. Martin Indyk was senior director and focused on the peace process, as well as the Gulf. David Satterfield did Morocco through Jordan, and worked closely with Martin on the peace process. My portfolio was Iraq, Iran, Arabian Penisula and South Asia. The Clinton administration thought Iraq was a Bush thing and did not make it a super high priority. Martin and I generated a number of policy ideas that fell flat on their face when they got to Tony Lake’s desk [Lake was then national security adviser], because he knew the president wouldn’t like it. So we largely stalled on Iraq. But there were some really good things happening in that office, a lot of progress made on peace negotiations with Jordan and the Palestinians in that period. 

Tell me about dual containment. 

It was an attempt to say that we had more than one problem in the Gulf—and while they’re not identical, they’re linked—and we could defend against both Iraq and Iran simultaneously, while also preventing them from interfering with the peace process. 

You said that the administration wasn’t very concerned about the threat from Iraq, but weren’t they more concerned about it than about Iran, with the pressure on that front coming from outside? 

For sure, some of the stuff we did on Iran was because of the midterm elections and the mood in Congress. But it wasn’t just the Republicans who were hard-line. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who had negotiated the release of the hostages and loathed the Iranians, got Clinton alone and pushed a total trade ban. [The] Treasury and Defense [Departments] were trying to keep trade alive while restricting it heavily. The president knew early it would be difficult to do more innovative diplomacy. 

Your office was handling both Middle East peace negotiations and conflict with the Gulf powers. How did that work? 

The peace-process folks worked in a small, tight group and it was pure diplomacy. I liked my account because it had a pol-mil mix. We didn’t get the equivalent of a ceremony on the White House lawn [like for the signing of the Oslo accords], but we got more exposed to the competition of ideas across the bureaucracy. It was a much messier mix, and we had to coordinate policy among a wide range of people in different parts of the Pentagon and [the] State [Department]. I rather liked that, because that’s what I thought the NSC was supposed to do. 

The complexities of Iran policy made it impossible to get anything done, and you’re saying you enjoyed that? 

Well, maybe “enjoy” is the wrong word. The NSC is supposed to reconcile competing interests in the big machine of government, and I got to actually see it firsthand and try to do it myself. We had our triumphs and failures. It was good to learn. I also handled the arrangements for two state visits, of [Pakistani Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto and [Indian Prime Minister] Narasimha Rao. These were working visits, and everybody across the system interested in India wanted a spot in the meetings. That was fun. 

Few know that the improvement in U.S.-Indian relations that came under George W. Bush was the culmination of efforts started by Bill Clinton the previous decade. 

Absolutely. Clinton laid the foundations. We would have been eager to make more progress, but we realized change was going to happen more slowly on their side than ours. One example: a senior Indian official comes in to meet with Tony Lake and starts out by saying, “We want to talk about large global issues.” Tony is thrilled, says he’d love to discuss Russia, China, other topics. That was talking point one. Points two through ten were all about Pakistan. [chuckle] You could see Tony’s face fall as he thought, “Okay, this isn’t really happening yet.” 

Did your view of Congress change when you moved from the Hill to the White House?  

I already knew that the Hill sometimes did things in a dramatic and flamboyant way without thinking through all the consequences. Having to deal with such legislation myself hardened my views a bit further. But I at least was lucky to have been a staffer when Congress was stronger on foreign policy.  

How did it feel going from intelligence to policy? 

It was quite an experience. I learned from watching the peace negotiations, and what I saw was that when you are deeply engaged in real diplomacy, talks that might actually change major things in the world, a lot of the actual policymaking is very tedious, tactical stuff. Who’s going to invite whom? At what level do you receive the person? How do you convey to the parties that something is really important? As for my previous experience, on many issues, intel plays a moderately useful supporting role, but not much more. On Iraq, however, a single piece of intel could pull it off Clinton’s back burner, forcing a meeting with the president to discuss what was going on in this closed-off society. When it came to the Gulf, intel and policy were so closely entwined that there was much continuity between the work I did before and after coming to the NSC.  

How did you come to the UN?  

One day in the driveway between the White House and the Old Executive Office Building, George Tenet [the CIA director] asked me if I would consider going to New York and working for Madeleine Albright [then the U.S. ambassador to the UN]. She and I had crossed paths a few times at conferences, and I always liked her, so I said yes, and that began two terrific years of being the liaison between the intelligence community and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations [USUN]. I briefed the top three ambassadors and also worked with the UN, sharing intelligence on peacekeeping operations. I worked a lot with Charlie Duelfer when he was number two in UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission on Iraq. I helped get support for humanitarian operations in the Great Lakes by giving Mrs. [Sadako] Ogata [the UN high commissioner for refugees] imagery and other material that helped them understand the scale of the refugee problem. 

What did you learn about the UN’s strengths and weaknesses?  

Like most people, I ended up with a love-hate relationship with the organization. When I was working for Albright, the Council [on Foreign Relations] got her and Jeane Kirkpatrick [a former Republican U.S. ambassador to the UN] together for a conversation, assuming they would have wildly different views about the importance of the UN. But it was more congenial than expected. Kirkpatrick said she had come to the UN thinking it was a terrible place and having all these ideas about how to fix it or allow the United States to escape its interference. But then she realized that she could use her position to represent the United States to parts of the world Washington often ignored: “The ambassadors from small countries who were never going to get a White House visit? I was the most senior American they interacted with. So I tried to do business with them.” She came around to the view that the UN is one of the important ways the United States conveys its interests to the world and tries to shape its environment.  

But it’s not a healthy organization. It’s not a meritocracy. There’s political patronage at all levels. The specialized agencies get a lot of work done, for which they don’t always get credit. Conversations in the Security Council can be infuriating and feel like a dead end. 

Where did you go next? 

After USUN, I went back to the National Intelligence Council and spent five years as vice chairman. I was responsible for estimates and for recruiting NIOs. I worked for John Gannon and John Helgerson, two career CIA guys, and I think the insider-outsider team worked well. 

Were you surprised by the 9/11 attacks? In some ways, you’d been warning about things just like this. 

Everybody was shocked that they were as successful as they were, that the terrorists picked such extraordinary targets and could pull it off. We thought it was much more likely they would attack the U.S. overseas. And if you had pressed Tenet about possible attacks on the mainland, he would probably have focused on car bombs, kidnappings, or assassinations. Some people said, “Oh, three years ago, we wrote a piece noting they could use airplanes as weapons.” Sure, in theory, that was on a list somewhere. It doesn’t mean people were actually warned about it. Bin Laden was hiding out in Tora Bora. We couldn’t quite envision the technology, the capabilities they had acquired. 

Were you there for the wars afterward? 

Only some. In December 2001, the Stimson Center approached me about coming on as president and CEO. I wasn’t a nuclear nonproliferation specialist, but they liked my broader portfolio, cross-disciplinary work, and government experience. I was nearing five years at the NIC, and 25 years in government, and my 50th birthday. I decided it would be a good moment to start a second career. It all came together very nicely. 

Talk to me about the Iraqi WMD [weapons of mass destruction] fiasco. 

By late 2001 the NIC was tasked to produce an unclassified white paper on Iraqi WMD.  It was clear that the community's Iraq experts were using well established judgments that did not contain any new information, and I was troubled that the analysts were largely dismissive of UNSCOM's judgments. By that point, UNSCOM knew more than the U.S. government did. They had more time on the ground, more sources, had physically observed some of these facilities, and they were saying, “There’s nothing there.” 

Didn’t our intel people think the UNSCOM people were being fooled by Saddam?  

Yes and no. I think it was deeper than that, and involved some professional arrogance and jealousy: “We’ve got the big technical systems; we know what’s really going on.” We built UNSCOM; we wanted it to be multilateral; we got them up and running. Years later, officials on the U.S. side were loath to accept how good UNSCOM had become or concede that their own [intelligence] collection had atrophied.  

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, did you think Saddam had prohibited WMD?  

I was shocked that we didn’t have more of a protocol for finding such weapons during and after the war. I was flabbergasted that U.S. soldiers didn’t have it high on their task list to go and secure these alleged WMD sites. They just ignored them. Eventually, we’d find dumps by tracing Iraqis who came in after getting sick from drinking water contaminated by old material. So maybe WMD was more of a pretext than the real determinant of going to war. 

Were you surprised by the Duelfer report’s eventual finding that there wasn’t anything there?  

No. 

How do you square the Bush administration’s supposed worry about WMD with its lack of preparation for handling actually existing WMD? Were they lying? Incompetent? Worried about long-term rather than short-term threats?  

I don’t know. It’s still a mystery. One can dig through the recent US Army "interim" history of the Iraq war to determine how much effort was made to seal off old WMD sites. 

What was it like running a think tank?  

I had spent most of my career in think tanks for Congress and the executive branch, so I knew what they did in terms of policy-relevant analysis.  But the business model was very different and I faced quite a new set of challenges in running a non-profit.  Nonetheless, it was fun to see things from the front-office perspective. Having been vice chairman of the NIC was a big help, because it gave me experience with the human resources part, scouting and recruiting people. 

Do you like management?  

Parts of it. I was never great at budgets and fundraising, but I liked the external communications, working with the board, nurturing rising talent. 

Does management require different skills than analysis?  

In both diplomacy and intelligence, people are promoted into management because they are good at the jobs below, not because they necessarily have the appropriate skills for it. I have always liked doing a mix of both. I never wanted to be alone at my desk just staring at a screen all day. So for me, Stimson was a really good fit. And I had a great time. We did a lot of projects, but the most rewarding part was helping good people, particularly women, set higher goals for their own professional development. 

After ten years, including a lot of fundraising, I said, “I’m really tired.” And then it took me another few years to leave. I had long conversations with my board about succession planning, and we worked it out smoothly. After that, I wrote a monograph for the Atlantic Council on Iran policy, did a project with the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, served on a few boards. I loved taking a bit of a break. Then I took a new position as director of the international security program at George Mason University. 

You spent 25 years in very tense, high-level national security positions, dealing with some of the world’s biggest crises. How did you have a life and raise a family in that context?  

First, I was not at senior levels for 25 years, only the last five years. Second, I married late, and we adopted a child when I was in my mid-40s. So I was able to do a lot of professional stuff early without family responsibilities. For women starting a family early, who are still establishing themselves professionally, it’s much more stressful. 

How did gender affect your career?  

CRS was a fairly gender-neutral environment. In the executive branch and tough national security positions, there were just fewer women. I was certainly in circumstances where men took credit for points I made. Sometimes, traveling with military officers, there would be awkward moments about what you do after hours, where it seemed inconvenient to have a senior woman on a delegation. Sometimes in the Middle East, a female official would be treated as a curiosity. They’d be very courteous and solicitous but sometimes just ignore you or assume that you were junior. By the time I got to Stimson, there were several think tanks in Washington being run by women. I’ve never been prone to looking at life through a gender prism. It’s not that I am uninterested in the issue, but in my own career, I operated on the assumption that my professional situations were meritocracies until absolutely proved otherwise, that I would generally be assessed based on the quality of my work. And it was usually true. 

What are you proudest of in your career?  

I take a great sense of satisfaction in what I did. I was in interesting jobs in interesting times, got to look at national security from many different vantage points. 

Any regrets?  

I got into the Foreign Service just after I started at CRS. They pursued me, but I had already started to settle in, so I passed. Occasionally, I’m jealous of people who spent more time overseas. I’ve never done what diplomats get to do, which is really burrow in and be in a place for several years. 

Any advice for those starting out?  

Have an honest conversation with yourself about what you like and what you’re good at, find out where those two lines converge, and do that. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.