Javed Ali: To the White House…and Back

March 3, 2021
Contact: Mike Wood mwoodmw@umich.edu

Javed Ali

Growing up in metro Detroit, Javed Ali always knew his parents expected him to follow in their footsteps and become a doctor, but he heard a different calling. In his sophomore year at the University of Michigan, he made the brave move to break with family tradition and start a career that eventually led to a job at the White House.

More information: https://fordschool.umich.edu/faculty/javed-ali

Mike Wood: Welcome back to another episode of the podcast, Michigan News Beyond the Headlines. I’m Mike Wood. I’m a video producer at Michigan News on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. These days, I’m doing my video interviews via Zoom, but I’m still meeting a lot of interesting people. And that’s why I created this podcast. So you can meet them, too. Javed Ali is a Towsley policymaker in residence, teaching at the Ford School of Public Policy here at the U of M. Even though he’s had a long career working in counterterrorism, his parents expected him to follow in their footsteps and become a doctor.

[AUDIO OF JAVED ALI PLAYS]

Wood: And because of that, he was able to have a very successful career working in counterterrorism in Washington, D.C., with positions in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, culminating when he became the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the White House. And via Zoom, he’s here with us now. Hi Javed!

Javed Ali: Hi Mike, Morning.

Wood: Good morning. Well, we first met last fall when I interviewed you for a Michigan News video reacting to the alleged kidnapping plot against Governor Whitmer and then again recently to get your take on the Capitol insurrection.

Wood: You’ve also recently been interviewed by dozens of media outlets around the world.

[COMPILED AUDIO OF NEWS INTERVIEWS PLAYS]

Ali: It certainly has been a really interesting experience, having been in the media as much as I’ve been in the past half year. So, part of it to me that I always find surprising is just the level of attention I was getting. Even going back to last October, and then whatever that volume of interviews was last fall, it doubled or tripled or quadrupled in a really short amount of time in the aftermath of the siege on the Capitol.

Ali: So I think I wound up doing almost 40 interviews in about two and a half weeks.

Wood: So obviously, you know, you have a counter-terrorism background. You worked in Washington, D.C. for a long time. What are some of the things they’re asking you? And are they all kind of the same questions or does sometimes the media outlet ask you something that you really think—really gets to the heart of the matter that other people aren’t asking?

Ali: Most of the times you don’t know what questions will be asked, whether it’s on air or in a print form or sort of written form.

Ali: So you have to be nimble and you have to be agile and you have to know what you want to say if given the opportunity. So just looking at what occurred over the really intense time with the Capitol siege, there were some interviews where, yes, I was being sort of asked, you know, generally the same thing in multiple interviews, one sort of being, “You know, what a threat look like. How serious is this?”. Other questions about “what went wrong” and “who’s to blame”, “where the government can do better”.

Ali: And then as we got closer to the inauguration, I was getting asked questions about, “Is the security actually good enough for the inauguration? What’s the likelihood of threat?”. And those are really difficult questions to answer because you’re trying to stare into some crystal ball and you—obviously there’s a potential to be wrong is high. So I tried to sort of answer those questions the best I could. And a lot of—a lot of time these questions were on live television interviews. So again, your margin for error is very small in those environments.

Ali: So, you know, I tried to respond to those questions, but again, in a way that I was more comfortable with versus sort of taking one of those really difficult questions to answer and coming up with a response that just would have made me seem silly going down the road. So that’s always an interesting line to travel on.

Wood: Prior to teaching at the University of Michigan, but you’ve been here kind of on and off for three years now, you were the senior director for counter-terrorism at the National Security Council. What did that job entail and how did you get that job?

Ali: That was a really interesting chapter in my own professional career. It wasn’t that long of a chapter only about a year. So President Trump had been elected fall 2016. I had been in government at that point for about fifteen and a half years. I was already contemplating leaving, not because I was satisfied with government service. I really enjoyed everything I did. But I also was trying to figure out, is there—is this the time in my own career to switch gears and potentially explore teaching at Michigan?

Ali: I felt in my own mind I was sort of being pulled in a couple of different directions. And after President Trump got elected, this position on the National Security Council, the senior director for counter-terrorism, there were two senior director positions in this office of counter-terrorism policy at the White House. So I was being considered for the second one. So sort of like the deputy in this office. I was at another organization called the National Counterterrorism Center on a detail assignment or on loan, for lack of a better phrase, from the FBI, which is my home agency. I got paid every two weeks by the FBI and my name got submitted to the White House team that was trying to pick this senior director for counter-terrorism position.

Ali: I thought, well, that’s interesting because I wouldn’t have probably volunteered my own name, not because there was anything wrong with it. I just wasn’t sure if even staying in government for another year was—was the way to go. But it was an honor to be considered. And I figured, well, you know, this is a pretty special club. There’d only been about a dozen people over the last twenty, twenty five years who’d been senior directors for counterterrorism.

Ali: So I thought it was a really elite sort of fraternity. And again, any time in government you get considered to serve at that level. You may as well just kind of see how the process goes. But the whole time I was being considered sort of late 2016-early 2017, and I’m being very serious here. I thought I was the worst qualified candidate in a pool of very qualified senior level professionals for the counterterrorism mission, I thought I wouldn’t get picked.

Ali: And then lo and behold, after a few rounds of interviews, I did and again, I was shocked. I also didn’t know the people in the White House who were making the selection. I didn’t know them personally. So that was another thing, I didn’t have a personal in. So I got selected. Must have been February 2017. And I went back to my wife and I said, look, I’ve now been selected. Do we really want to do this?

Ali: Because once you go into any of these White House jobs and certainly a senior director job, whether counter-terrorism or anything else, I mean you really are going to be working at a level that’s that’s hard to describe and the stress and the pressure and the intensity, it’s just kind of it comes with these positions. You have to make a pretty big sacrifice on your personal life in order to do the job. And again, that was something we needed to think through as a family.

Ali: And she said, do it, maybe let’s try it for a year, instead of multiple years. I arrived to the White House March 2017. The administration had been there for about six weeks and it was like drinking from a firehose on day one. They don’t hand you a playbook and say, here’s how to be a senior director at the NSC. I mean, there was briefing materials, but being in that environment, learning everything, you have to learn not only about the substantive side, right.

Ali: Again, all this high end strategy and policy that I myself wasn’t necessarily steeped in. And then, just how does the NSC work as an organization—which you’ll never see that supporting the White House the way I did for almost 20 years, you have to be in it every day in order to understand how to pull all these different levers and gears. And so that was, you know, that made the job challenging. In terms of division of labor, one of the roles I had, in addition to the substantive ones, was kind of managing the team day to day.

Ali: And we had a pretty big team of other career professionals having managed an even bigger team, much bigger team in my previous job at the National Counterterrorism Center, I tried to bring in some of those just kind of business practices and kind of management rules that I had developed that are—hopefully had been successful my previous position and employed them in the White House environment.

Wood: Do you literally have an office in the White House you went to work every day in the White House or-?

Ali: The office was in the White House. I mean, you’re in the White House compound, and you have to enter the White House complex, literally across the street from the White House and the building called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) which is one of the most—I think it’s one of the most interesting and just architecturally stunning buildings in all of Washington, very sort of steeped in so much history. And it was just incredible honor to to work there every day, and I had to pinch myself sometimes just going into work, like you’re actually like swiping your badge, you’re going into the White House complex, your office is across the street.

Ali: And then because I was a senior director, this is going to sound silly. The color of my White House badge was different and it was blue. And the blue badge meant that I had unfettered access outside of like I couldn’t stroll into the Oval Office or things like that. But the National Security Advisors Office, the Situation and Homeland Security Advisors office, other parts of the the White House complex. And again, it was—it was hard to appreciate the enormity of that when you’re there on the job because you’re just focused on your task in front of you or the next thing on your agenda that day.

Ali: You don’t or I felt like I didn’t have time to let it all sink in. That happened, I think, later in the year that I was there. But initially, those first few months, it was just like running on a hamster wheel every day. And I mean, the days were long, the days at least 12, 14 hour days. And then the second you walk outside the White House complex and you leave your office, which was a very secure, highly classified environment, we were still on the—sort of the clock or on the job.

Ali: So it really almost became a twenty four hour kind of commitment. And in the world of counterterrorism, where you’re dealing with things happening all the time, literally around the clock. So that’s why even doing a year there takes a significant amount of, you know, physical stamina, mental stamina and I mean it really, really was sort of a grind, but also exhilarating, too.

Ali: I mean, I think that’s the thing that keeps you going is just the sort of the thrill of being in that kind of environment.

Wood: Did you ever as a—you know, as a kid, that grew up in metro Detroit, you went to the University of Michigan and University of Detroit Law School. Did you ever, maybe after you left or whatever, just go, wow, how did this happen?

Ali: Yeah, I mean, I grew up in a really interesting part of metro Detroit, about forty five minutes north east of Ann Arbor, a place called West Bloomfield. You know, very sort of privileged kind of lifestyle. We lived in a bubble, but also very, very interesting from a community perspective that was very diverse, wasn’t sort of monolithic in any particular way. And I learned a lot about sort of the world and just how to get along with people just growing up in this very different environment in West Bloomfield.

Ali: But interestingly, the one thing that I wasn’t that great at, even though I have three degrees with school, so I always chuckle at the fact that yeah I’ve got degrees, but I probably would have been one of those people, Professors would have said, or even my my peers around me would have said, “That’s probably not the person who’s gonna to go serve in the White House as the senior director”. Or even more ironically, and this I get a huge chuckle out of, “To go into academia and teach”, right? It is such an honor and a privilege to do that, because someone like me would not have been one of those people would have been earmarked as someone who would have even entered that field.

Wood: I know your folks, you said, were both doctors who’d immigrated from India for better opportunities in the US, and I’m sure they’re real proud of what you had achieved. But when you were in high school and you were contemplating college, what were you thinking of doing for your career? And did your parents, because they had come as immigrants and really wanted to embrace the American dream and fully were, did they steer you in any certain direction or what were you thinking of doing when you were a kid in high school?

Ali: My parents are incredible role models, true inspirations for both my sister and I. My father passed away last year, but my parents were exceptional. They were both doctors, right? So the bar, the bar could not have been higher in terms of profession. And I think the expectation for them was that I would at least try to follow in their footsteps. And so they had a lot of things planned out for me had I had I gone down that path of medicine. And part of me thought I wanted to do it.

Ali: But then there was this other part of me as I—as I got older that started to tug on the other side of the brain to say, “This probably isn’t the thing that you’re going to be most inspired by your most passionate about, and there’s something else”. And that something else was this very odd and strange sort of world of international relations and national security. But I had a hard time in those formative years trying to figure out kind of what did that look like professionally?

Ali: I knew I was incredibly interested in those topics then trying to come up with the game plan for going into a completely different direction. And at the same time, knowing if I did that, I would deeply disappoint my parents because, again, there was this sort of their own expectations, the sort of cultural expectations too. Kind of like—you know, you go the path that your parents kind of set out for you.

Ali: So, again, I wasn’t doing great in school, even in high school. I wasn’t a great student. So I knew I had my own shortcomings academically. School did not come easy to me. I mean, I really had to work hard. My joke with school is I had to work hard just to be mediocre. So I started in that premed track when I got to Michigan, even though I think by the time I got Michigan, I knew in my heart I was just interested in a bigger world around me and things that seemed a bit remote.

Ali: So that first half a year, year plus at Michigan was not the path to academic success because I was taking all the wrong classes and I kind of middle of my sophomore year, I had to make this hard decision. It’s either now or never. So I switched gears to political science. There was a lot of—a lot of interesting conversations with my parents and I about kind of making that choice. And I did feel like I was letting them down. But that’s where school to me started to feel not easy, but effortless, right? Like I didn’t have to expend all this energy just trying to figure out, you know, the basics of classes like chemistry and calculus and some of these other classes, the way I would in political science, where just I could devour the readings and write papers and focus on terrorism issues. Like the light bulb really went on then at Michigan, and I always think my time at Michigan, certainly the last two and a half years kick started me on the path that I continued to to go down once I graduated.

Wood: Was there a point in your career where maybe your dad said, I didn’t understand it, but I get it now, or-?

Ali: I had left the White House March 2018. I was still in government, but I, I left after doing a year there and I took just literally took a month off after that. And I just needed to put my brain back together because it was such an intense year. And that was—that was the the longest time off I had taken in my government service in that month off. And I did a just like a small talk to students at my high school in metro Detroit called Detroit Country Day. And it was a talk about my career and kind of just some of the things that I did, you know, generally. And my parents were there and I remember they were in the audience and my dad—both my mom and dad, came up to me afterwards and they were proud and whatnot. But they said this is the first time we’ve actually ever heard you talk about your career in that kind of sort of comprehensive way. And then at my mom or dad said this funny line, “Like now we finally understand what you were doing all this time”.

Ali: Like before, I don’t think they really did because I didn’t sort of get into it and lay out the story the way I did in thirty or forty five minute talk. So, yeah, I mean, I think they were they were proud at different points, but I don’t think they truly understand kind of what that career evolution looked like. So I always thought that was that was pretty funny.

Wood: That’s neat.

Wood: I know you were working in Washington, D.C. on September 11th of 2001, I guess, in counterterrorism for a contractor.

Ali: Right.

Wood: Where were you that day? And what was your first reaction when you heard about the attacks?

Ali: Yeah. So my story on 9/11 is very sort of personal and visceral and still is kind of seared into my brain almost 20 years later. On 9/11, I was working for a small company that was doing a lot of counterterrorism related work for all the different departments and agencies that I then wound up working for in my own government career, the Department of Defense, the FBI, even the White House office that I also went into almost 20 years later. So by the summer of 2001, then this goal that I initially had to achieve in Washington when I first arrived mid 1990s, finally came through.

Ali: I finally got what’s known as a conditional offer to work in my first government job focused on counterterrorism. But when you get these conditional offers, you don’t know how long it’s going to take to go through all the steps and the hurdles to have your background investigation completed and all these other things you have to do. That, again, are way beyond your control. So you don’t know when you’re going to start. All you know is you’ve got a conditional offer, even though it was supporting of different parts of the government, just getting into the government directly.

Ali: And again, that was the major goal that I’d set out for myself almost a decade prior. So all of that sort of swimming around and then the morning of 9/11, I get in my car. I had been married the previous year, so I’m still kind of newly married. And I remember driving up one of the main roads in Northern Virginia, north south is called 395. So I was driving up 395 North. And then I had to take a little exit and then loop around the Pentagon to then get on another road network to get to my office in Northern Virginia.

Ali: I’m hearing the news of a plane or perhaps at that point two planes. I think by nine o’clock, both the first two planes hit the Trade Center. So I was just listening to what was happening on the radio. And I thought, well, maybe this is terrible, but it wasn’t I exactly sure. And then by the time I got my to my office fifteen minutes later and I saw the CNN feed, it was clear that this was an act of terrorism.

Ali: And then my brain sort of automatically defaulted to Al-Qaeda. I had no pre knowledge of that from any insider information. But again, sort of knowing the group, knowing the threat, recognizing that the government was concerned about what could be next from from Al-Qaeda because Al-Qaeda had launched two major attacks against the United States in 1998 and the embassies in East Africa and then the USS Cole attack off the coast of Yemen. The Cole was a Navy destroyer. So all those pieces very quickly came into play. And I called one of my good friends, actually, my best friend, who we grew up right next door to each other in West Bloomfield. And then we each had this goal of working on national security in Washington, and by that time, we had achieved it. He was in the Pentagon that morning. So I picked up the phone and I called him and I said, and he also is a proud Michigan grad, although he got his Ph.D. from Ohio state. So I never stopped giving him a hard time about that. But I said, Mark, are you ok, are you watching the news? And obviously everybody in the Pentagon is watching the news and nobody knew what was going to happen next. And so, we just said these childhood friends, both kind of working in this space now, just said we’re going to try to stay in touch throughout the day. I hung up the phone with him and then 15 minutes later, roughly American 77 hit the Pentagon and then into my office. My office was on the seventh floor, so I didn’t see the plane hit the Pentagon, but I could see the explosion and the smoke rising from the Pentagon. And my heart just sank. I mean, my heart was already heavy based on what was happening in New York, but now it’s happening in D.C. and nobody knew where, like how many other planes were hijacked and how many.

Wood: Right, where are they coming from? What are they gonna hit?

Ali: Right. It was complete, just utter panic and terror and almost, I don’t know, 15 minutes, a half an hour after my phone then started to ring off the hook because there weren’t a lot of outside experts in counterterrorism. Every major network wanted me to come on television in the moment and help explain to their viewers what was happening. And I was so just conflicted by everything and also knowing well I’ve got one foot sort of pointed in the government with this application. And should I even say anything at this one? Will that jeopardize my ability? To go in government. So, I mean, I took all the phone calls, but I said no to them. Which was another very odd kind of moment to be in. I mean, I was turning down interviews with Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw and all like literally all the major networks and all the major anchors. And I just said, no. I said, “I’m not—I don’t know what I’m I don’t know what I’m going to say. I don’t know if I should say anything”. And that day was just confirmation to me of why wanting to go into that career field was so important. You know, it was a horrific tragedy beyond words for those of us old enough to remember. But I also knew that this is the reason why I wanted to get in government, right. To help prevent these things from happening again was very sort of profound to me. And I still remember everything about that morning. I mean, I don’t remember what I did a couple of days ago, but I remember everything about what I did on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Wood: And you told me that your friend in the Pentagon, U of M grad Mark Jacobson, was ok. He was unhurt. And in fact, the two of you reflect on that morning every year on September 11.

Wood: At that time, immediately following 9/11, because you have a traditionally Muslim name, did you feel like maybe people were looking at you sideways ever, because of so much confusion and everything that was going on?

Ali: Yeah, that—that was another very interesting part of my career, both in and out of government, was having my own identity be very unique. I mean, not a lot of Muslim Americans in that field pre 9/11. There were more coming in after 9/11, but even still, it was a very small pool. And so I always knew my identity would just make me different, both in my name and the way I looked. But I also wasn’t going to let that be a liability in any sense. And had the government been so concerned about that then I would have never got my initial job in the first place, right. If there was that much concern about having a Muslim American in counterterrorism in that post 9/11 world than theoretically someone like me would have not gotten in. So I don’t think I was—I was ever denied an opportunity based on that. You know, the first place I ended up working was within the Defense Department in the Pentagon. And I don’t—I mean, no one ever to my face said anything to me or made me feel somehow there was something I needed to explain by just sort of physically being in an environment. But I could tell, you know, there were certain people who may have looked at me a different way or looked at me trying to read sort of nonverbal clues. I could tell they may not have been as comfortable. But again, I didn’t—I didn’t that affect me. I said, if someone has a problem with me, then they can either say it to my face or somebody else. Somebody in management can say something. And that never happened. And I think that’s a strength of the security enterprise. So I was always really proud of that, is that I was able to sort of bust through some glass ceilings or perhaps barriers that hadn’t been broken before. And I also realized and certainly as my career trended upward, I was the most senior Muslim American in the intelligence community, probably writ large, not even just counterterrorism, and it didn’t change how I did my job. It didn’t affect me professionally. It was just more an observation that ninety nine times out of one hundred, whatever meeting I was in or whatever room I was in, not only was I the only Muslim American, in a lot of those circumstances, I was the only person of color. And again, that just shows how interesting it was for someone with my background, to then kind of climb these different ladders and had a successful career in government.

Wood: So you tell me you’re currently teaching a counterterrorism class and co-teaching a class on cybersecurity here at the U of M. How hard of a transition has it been to start teaching?

Ali: The transition to me, teaching was another interesting aspect of this evolution that I’ve gone through. And I had no—like zero background in teaching whatsoever. So there was no foundation to point to to suggest that I could be successful in that environment. The plan was always to try and pitch myself back at Michigan because again, I was so passionate about the school. I don’t think you’ll find a bigger Michigan fan than me and supporter of the university. I challenge someone to contest me on that.

Wood: That’s a big statement.

Ali: Yeah, exactly. But I can nerd out with the best of them, go back into the history books and talk about games and things like that. But anyways, um, yeah. So I wanted to leverage that, just again, natural passion I had for the school with the potential opportunity. But I didn’t—I didn’t own that part of the equation, right? There had to be an opportunity. Also I think at that point, realizing that this would probably have to trigger my departure from government because I couldn’t still work for the government in a relatively demanding position in national security and fly to Ann Arbor every week to teach.

Wood: Right.

Ali: It just wouldn’t have worked. And I just made the decision to resign from government. And then dive into the unknown with the teaching opportunity. I had to get very quickly scaled up into a profession that I didn’t really know much about other than just kind of aspirationally really wanted to do it. You just don’t show up to the University of Michigan and say you want to teach even if you’re a really passionate alum like myself. I mean, that just doesn’t happen every day, right. And I always knew that I had to work really hard to constantly kind of refine and get better even for the short amount of time that I’ve been here.

Wood: First of all, thank you for all your service to, you know, to the country and thanks a lot for sharing your story today. I really appreciate it.

Ali: Thanks, Mike. Always great to spend time with you. I have enjoyed our conversations and even the notion of service. I still feel like I’m able to tap into that, being associated with Michigan because it’s a public university and teaching in a school of public policy. So to me, in my mind, I still feel like I’m serving in the public good. And again, that’s something that I was always really inspired by in my own career. So luckily, I’ve been able to tap into that here in Michigan as well.

Wood: Well, thanks again Javed, it was great to hear your story and thank you all for listening. I’d also like to thank the whole team here at Michigan News where we bring University of Michigan stories to the world. If you liked what you heard today, search for Michigan news Beyond the Headlines, wherever you get your podcasts. And of course, don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so you won’t miss an episode. I’m Mike Wood. I’ll see you beyond the headlines.