Just over a year and a half has passed since Anne Neuberger ’05 took on what would be a challenging assignment under any circumstances: serving as the first chief risk officer of the National Security Agency, the organization charged with protecting the US government’s most sensitive communications and with conducting intelligence operations by monitoring the global flow of data.
The role was created in the wake of a spectacular media leak: Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents that shed light on the NSA’s surveillance operations within the United States and across the globe. The leak was a public relations disaster for the agency, the executive office, and tech giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook, and for communications companies like Verizon, which the US government had compelled, under court order, to provide communications of specific users to the NSA and FBI. In response to the revelations, NSA Director Admiral Michael S. Rogers made strengthening risk management at the agency a top priority, along with regaining the trust of its various stakeholders — including the American public. “[The NSA] recognized that we needed to take an enterprise look at risk,” Neuberger says, “using a consistent way to measure and manage the risks of our very complex work in a holistic way, from the risk of an operation being exposed or failing to the risk of a compliance error to the risk a country’s intelligence operations bring to confidence in its technology sector.”
For that, Rogers turned to Neuberger, who in seven years with the Navy and NSA had proven to be a creative problem-solver with an eye for limiting risk and streamlining operations. At the age of 38, she was tasked with building a risk model for the agency. The urgency for such a model was one of the reasons Neuberger was passionate about taking on the role. “Intelligence operations are, in some ways, a fundamental exercise in risk management,” she explains. “If a nation collects too little intelligence or analyzes too conservatively, its citizens could be at risk. On the other hand, if it collects too much or uses analysis methods deemed too aggressive, it may violate its primary values and forfeit its democratic legitimacy.” An explosion of data and technology, as well as shifting public attitudes and priorities, further complicated efforts to defend against threats while upholding civil liberties.
Working closely with leaders across the agency, Neuberger created new processes and worked to implement them throughout the NSA. She and other top NSA officials then took the step of discussing the new procedures with external audiences, including academics, privacy advocates, and tech companies. However, the effort to reach out can only go so far, she notes. “I’m very sensitive to the need in a democracy for civilians to understand the principles by which intelligence operations operate,” she says. “But intelligence operations must be done with some level of secrecy to be effective.”
Fleeing a Surveillance State
Neuberger’s sensitivity to government overreach in monitoring its own citizens — and to the potential dangers of unchecked power — stems from the persecution faced by her parents and grandparents. Both her mother’s and father’s families were devastated by the Holocaust; of Neuberger’s eight great-grandparents, seven died in concentration camps. “Germany was a democracy,” she says. “My family was destroyed by a government that turned on its citizens.” Her father spent his childhood in Hungary during the years of Communist rule; he came to the United States as a refugee. Her mother was born in the US, after her own parents arrived as Holocaust survivors.
In the United States, the family enjoyed new freedoms — from the right to practice their religion to the vast spectrum of economic opportunities that were suddenly open to them. They settled in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where they lived family-oriented lives and opened a financial services business, handling stock transfers and other corporate proxy processing. Neuberger grew up multilingual, speaking English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, with knowledge of Hungarian. She attended an all-girls school and later enrolled at Lander College for Women, an all-women division of Touro College where students balance broad academic instruction with Judaic studies.
After earning an undergraduate degree in finance, with significant coursework in computer science, Neuberger joined the family business and revamped its operations. But she wanted to continue her education, and she applied to Columbia Business School.
The Impact of September 11
Neuberger took her first courses in the fall of 2000 and took the spring semester off after the birth of her first child. She returned in the fall of 2001 but changed her plans after the September 11 attacks. “I was living in Brooklyn,” Neuberger says. “And there was no way — short of moving — to get to Columbia in a reasonable amount of time.” She opted to take a year off from her studies and went back to work. “And in that year, I thought a lot about global changes” — an expansion of focus that led her to pursue both an MBA from Columbia Business School and a Master of International Affairs from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where she focused on energy and security in the Persian Gulf. Along the way, she learned Arabic and French.
After graduation, Neuberger spent a year overseeing the acquisition and integration of Wachovia’s custody and trust operations. Then a former SIPA professor told her about an opportunity that would change the course of her life: the White House Fellows program. Founded by President Lyndon Johnson, it is a highly competitive program that allows individuals from outside the government to spend a year working full time with senior White House staff and other top-ranked public officials. “This was my way of starting to repay a debt to this country, in a time of war, for the gifts of freedom it had given my family,” Neuberger says.
Neuberger was assigned to the Department of Defense and became the first woman — and, notably, a woman civilian, with a private-sector background — to serve as a White House Fellow for the Secretary of Defense. There, she worked on accelerating the delivery and acquisition of MRAP — mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles that detect the blasts from roadside bombs — and on creating incentives for recruiting linguists. Later, as the Navy’s deputy chief management officer, she focused on modernizing the Navy’s enterprise IT. In much of her work, she found that the skills she’d learned in business school were shaping the way she approached problems. “My favorite B-school class was a forensic accounting class,” she remembers. “Our professor showed us several years of annual reports and income statements of a company that had some accounting irregularity, and we had to find it. That sense of looking at the details, the case-study approach, is certainly something that stayed with me.”
Moving Between Cultures
In 2009, Neuberger joined the NSA, where she worked to start United States Cyber Command (sometimes referred to as CyberCom). She also spearheaded significant work to connect the public and private sectors: she led the Enduring Security Framework Working Group, a partnership between the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, NSA, and 18 leading technology firms focused on securing critical US infrastructure by sharing specific threat information. She also led the first government pilot to share classified threat indicators with leading Internet service providers to allow them to better protect their clients from cyber threats. In just a few short years, she had proved adept not only at solving problems, but at building bridges — and at moving between cultures.
Neuberger, an observant Jew, keeps kosher and leaves work before sundown on Fridays so that she can be home with her family for the Jewish Sabbath. It is perhaps surprising, given the regularity of media stories about the difficulty women often face in maintaining a work-life balance, that Neuberger, a mother of two, has managed to find that balance while working on matters of national security. Neuberger has found the NSA to be supportive of her efforts to remain true to her faith and tradition. There is a lot of synergy between military culture and religious observance, she notes; in the military, “there is a respect for a sense of discipline and commitment to something bigger than you.” Over the years, she has found that colleagues and friends are often willing to make small changes — adjusting the timing of an event, for example — to make it possible for her to participate. “That’s the nicest way of including,” she says. “Making a small adjustment that makes you feel like you’re not inconveniencing anyone but also allows you to participate and be a part of shared experiences.”
“It’s our way of paying it forward — ensuring that the next generation of women feel that they can contribute to solving business problems, the country’s problems, and international challenges.”
As a woman in a predominantly male environment, Neuberger has thought a lot about the cultural perception of women. “There’s the culture I was raised in, where most women don’t work outside the community, or work isn’t a significant part of their lives,” she says. “And there’s the way women are perceived as leaders. And the way we perceive ourselves.” Throughout her career, her mentors have all been men, she says. “But whenever a woman approaches me, I make the time, because it’s our way of paying it forward — ensuring that the next generation of women feel that they can contribute to solving business problems, the country’s problems, and international challenges.”
Sister to Sister
For Neuberger, the need to pay it forward also led to the founding of Sister to Sister, a nonprofit that helps single mothers in Jewish communities in the United States and Canada. The charity currently reaches about 1,000 women and 4,000 children, with upwards of 200 women volunteers offering mentoring, job training, and emergency financial assistance to women who are facing the challenge of raising their children on their own.
Neuberger got the idea for Sister to Sister after receiving a call from a friend who was seeking help for a newly divorced mother of four who had lost her job and was about to be evicted. “I was struck that a woman like that would have no safety net,” Neuberger says. “I did a little research, sure that there were government agencies or charities I could connect her with, and there really wasn’t anything.”
Onward and Outward
Neuberger’s wide-ranging success, both professionally and through her charity, has taken her places that no one predicted she would go. As she moves forward, she hopes to encourage the pursuit of nuanced understanding that has served her so well in her career. Thinking back on the Snowden revelations, she says that much of the fallout can be traced to a failure of communication and understanding. The government, despite its efforts, was largely unsuccessful at describing the complexity of technology’s convergence and its impact on preventing future attacks “so that people got an understanding of the goals, the culture of the intelligence community in terms of working within the law, and the purposes of such programs,” she says. “The question goes beyond what is lawful. It is the ‘should we?’ question, even for lawful activities: is the intelligence collection and its impact on privacy appropriate for the harm we are seeking to avoid? These are difficult questions and ones that seem clearer with 20/20 hindsight.”
Neuberger hopes that talented individuals, particularly those with advanced business education and skills, won’t shy away from the government sector. “Once I came, I was struck by the impact that people who have formal business training — and that structured approach to thinking about problems — can have,” says Neuberger. There are many fellowship opportunities, she notes, and those who explore opportunities within the intelligence world might be surprised by the rewards. In addition to working on challenging problems with talented and committed people, there is the satisfaction of serving a country that is a tremendous force for good around the world, Neuberger says.
“We are an example of what a country with many diverse cultures and creeds can accomplish,” she says. “Are we perfect? Of course not. But I believe, to quote President Clinton, [that] there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right with America. I am the first in several generations of my family to grow up without fear; that is the gift this country has given me. Protecting that gift for my children and millions of other children is what brings me to work each day.”