Eric Rosenbach ’95, chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, isn’t focused on the upcoming election. In fact, employees of the Department of Defense are primarily concerned with protecting American citizens from outside threats and keeping the United States safe.
And that means closely monitoring ISIS and troublesome hotspots like North Korea and Syria, staying aware of homegrown radical groups and trying to head off hackers aiming to create hazards on the information highway.
Presently, Rosenbach concurrently heads the Department of Defense Transition Team, which is helping the Department of Defense ensure a smooth transition to a new administration, no matter which candidate wins. At the end of any administration, all senior political appointees submit their resignation to the new president, and the president then decides which senior political appointees he/she wants to remain in senior leadership positions.
Rosenbach was named chief of staff to Secretary Carter on July 6, 2015. In announcing the appointment, Carter stated in a release, “I am confident that Eric brings the right blend of strategic acumen, technological expertise, and managerial skill to help me lead the department during an important time in its history.”
A Day in Defense
Rosenbach gets to his Pentagon office at around 5:45 a.m. and reviews intelligence reports on activities that occurred the previous night. Later, he’ll brief Carter on the strategic implications of those reports, and assist the Secretary in preparing for the decisions and actions he should make that day. Rosenbach also stays abreast of matters of national and global security, including the ongoing threat of cyber attacks.
“No one agency is responsible for cybersecurity,” says Rosenbach, the former assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security. In that position, he monitored global weapons of mass destruction, antiterrorism activities and cyberspace threats.
“The Department of Defense has the largest set of networks in the world,” he continues. “We have over three million employees who own multiple electronic devices. We’re all over the world, and we’re the people the bad guys want to hack.”
And who are some of those “bad guys?”
“We’re proactive by trying to identify those that want to hack us,” he answers. “Nation states like China, Russia, North Korea and Iran have the resources to launch a cyberattack. However, due to the nature of the internet, an individual in some small American town also has the capability to launch a cyber attack, and it’s not easy to deter them.”
ISIS is another source of concern, but Rosenbach feels great steps have been taken to curb the terrorist group’s power.
“I can’t talk about the details, but we and our allies are bombing ISIS’s financial infrastructure, and our cyber-command is working to prevent them from using the internet to recruit people and prevent them from attacking us,” he says. “We’re also exposing the world to how evil they are, for example, by enslaving women and children.”
He admits one of the department’s biggest challenges in protecting the nation against major cyber attacks is preserving the balance between security and respecting Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights to privacy.
“Unfortunately, the internet wasn’t designed with security in mind,” he admits. “The internet promotes freedom of speech and research and development. It also lets people hack the infrastructure, mess around with data and disrupt systems that promote the quality of life.
“There needs to be an open dialog between government and tech firms about how they can work together to keep a balance. The worst thing we could do is go too far in one direction,” he says.
Another job duty involves reviewing matters relating to the country’s armed forces. Sometimes he must deal with troubling military-related disciplinary problems. But his goal is to find ways to improve the quality of life for people in the military.
“And then, around 7 p.m., I get to go home,” he says with a laugh.
A Life in Service
Rosenbach was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where his father, Bill, a 30-year Air Force veteran pilot, taught at the Air Force Academy.
“When I was seven years old, I dreamed of playing football in the NFL,” he says with a smile. “Growing up around the military also made me more aware of the importance of public service.”
At Davidson College, he lived both dreams by playing quarterback for the Wildcats, and receiving a scholarship through the school’s ROTC program. But after two years of grinding it out on the gridiron, he decided to concentrate more on academics.
“The best friends I had, I made through the Dean Rusk International Studies Program,” he remembers. “Public service motivated me. It’s a rewarding feeling to know you’re making a little bit of difference in the world. I figured that I’d be either a history or government teacher, or work in the foreign service.”
Rosenbach considers former professor Jack Perry, who taught in the Rusk program, one of his mentors: “He motivated students to get interested in world events. Projects I did in his classes opened my eyes to the world of security.”
Perry helped Rosenbach secure scholarships to visit Bulgaria, to study the way political parties were developing in the former communist country, and to Vietnam, which had just opened its doors to tourism.
The Vietnam trip was imbued with meaning; decades before, Rosenbach’s father had flown a C-130 Hercules airship during the Vietnam War, and his plane had been nearly shot down. When his father learned of the trip, he told his son he was fine with it, and the country needed to move forward.
After graduation, he entered the army and commanded a communications intelligence unit, providing strategic information to support operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Central Intelligence Agency named his unit the top intelligence organization in the U.S. military for two consecutive years.
He left the service in 2000 with the rank of captain and began working in Europe as chief cybersecurity officer for World Online, an internet telecommunications company.
“It was such a different environment from the army,” he says. “I had a fancy company car and flew all over Europe. But then 9/11 happened, and that really jarred me. I realized what I was doing didn’t feel rewarding, and went back to school intent on doing something in the public sector.”
He earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, and later earned a law degree from Georgetown University while serving as a staff member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Later, he was appointed executive director of the Belfer Center for International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he taught graduate-level classes on national security issues and directed research projects focused on cyber security and counterterrorism. In addition, he co-authored several books on national security issues, including Find, Fix, Finish: The Counterterrorism Campaign that Killed Bin Laden.
Rosenbach joined the Defense Department in 2011 as deputy assistant of defense for cyber policy. He jokes that the job of cyber operations and intelligence gathering is nothing like the James Bond world of exploding pens and evil henchmen who want to rule the world. By the way, Rosenbach prefers his martinis stirred, not shaken.
“It was a thrill, the first time I saw a folder stamped ‘top secret information,’” he says. “Actually, most of intelligence work is a lot more boring than what you see in the movies.”
Not all of his work involves intelligence gathering. He always accompanies Secretary Carter to visit U.S. servicemen and women overseas, including in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Rosenbach was especially touched when he toured a medical facility at Joint Base Lewis-McCord in Seattle, Washington, where he met a 25-year-old soldier who had been wounded in Afghanistan only two weeks prior.
“He had been shot six times, and was near death,” he says quietly. “The army medics had to massage his heart by hand to get it started again. He still had scar tissue. When I talked with him, all he wanted to do was get back to Afghanistan and go back to his unit and help out his friends. When you see that kind of service, it’s hard not to be moved and think that I need to work even harder in my job.”