WASHINGTON — Lisa Monaco’s brother has raced in the Boston Marathon. Like many in her native Newton, she has cheered runners along the route. But on Monday, after a pair of bombs ripped through crowds around the finish line, Monaco played a far more urgent role: briefing President Obama on details of the attack.
Just weeks into her new job as Obama’s White House adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, Monaco is coordinating the federal government’s response and keeping the president advised of progress in the investigation. The bombing is providing an early, high-profile test of her skills after spending a career as a behind-the-scenes law enforcement and intelligence official. Colleagues say she is well-prepared for the task.
“In a crisis she’s very cool. She’s unflappable,” said Kenneth Wainstein, who had the same job during the administration of President George W. Bush.
“She knows how to focus on the important points and not get distracted by all the noise that is inevitably out there in the aftermath of a crisis like this,’’ he added. “That’s very important for someone trying to guide the government apparatus through a crisis.”
On the day of the attacks, the White House released a photo of Obama, on the phone, during a briefing by his top homeland security team. Monaco sits by his desk in the Oval Office, a pen resting pensively on her lips, as the president speaks on the phone with FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Monaco has been the subject of a flurry of profiles this week in the Washington media, in the spotlight after the bombing.
She declined interview requests and the White House has not said how she has advised the president. If the suspects depicted in video footage released by the FBI are caught and are foreign nationals, she would likely be a key voice deciding whether to seek justice in a criminal court or military tribunals, whether they go to the prison system or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Monaco’s parents, Mary Lou and Anthony Monaco, still live in Newton. She attended Winsor School, a prestigious all-girls prep school in Boston known for its “Ivy pipeline.” When she graduated in 1986, the senior class chose the well-known feminist Gloria Steinem as their graduation speaker.
“Who’d have thought that attending an all-girls school would have prepared me so well for a basically all-male environment?” Monaco herself said in a keynote address at the alumnae weekend in 2011.
“Our teachers taught us: ‘You’re going to go places,’ ’’ she added.
Monaco went to Harvard University for her undergraduate studies and then earned her law degree at the University of Chicago. She has steadily worked her way up the ladder in Washington’s law enforcement and intelligence community. Patrick Fitzgerald, a former Chicago-based US Attorney who worked with Monaco, said she is sharp and engaging and is highly capable when dealing with sensitive topics.
“She was very sensible, very even keeled. People felt comfortable telling her more rather than less,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s quiet but gregarious. She’s not a stiff by any means. She’s down to earth.”
“There’s no dirt out there,” added Fitzgerald.
Unmarried and without children, Monaco is incredibly dedicated to her work, according to those who know her.
After earning her law degree, she clerked for a judge in the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which covers Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. She then served as counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno, providing advice on national security, budget, and law enforcement issues. From 2001 to 2007 she was a federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. During that time, she was appointed to the Enron Task Force, which led to the prosecution of five former executives of Enron Broadband Services.
From there, she went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where she was Mueller’s chief of staff, and the Department of Justice, where she held several top roles, including assistant attorney general.
In those positions, as she amassed counterterrorism experience, she developed a reputation for a plain-spoken, no-nonsense approach in those positions.
“She cuts through BS better than anyone I know,” said Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan and a close friend. “Unlike some people who take 17 hours to figure out the pressure points and upshots of something, she does it in a minute and a half.”
Some have speculated that she could be a future head of the FBI, which would make her the first female to run the prestigious agency. Mueller is scheduled to leave his post in September, creating an opening.
In the meantime, she’s helping the president coordinate the response to the bombings in Boston, an extremely pressurized role just a few weeks into the job.
“I think on the one hand it is really challenging when you consider she’s brand new, this is such a big deal,” said Patrick Rowan, who worked with her during the last four years of the Bush administration. “But this is her wheelhouse. This is terrorism, which she’s been working in for years.”
“As awful as it is to have to deal with an incident like this at any time she’s actually quite well prepared,” he added.
It’s not lost on those who know her that the latest terrorism tragedy has happened in Monaco’s home turf, where most of her family still lives and where she returns for holidays.
”She’s definitely a very proud Bostonian,” Bharara said. “She’s pretty loyal to her hometown.”
In the immediate aftermath of the bombings in Boston, Monaco’s mother was frantically trying to track down Christopher Monaco, who is Lisa Monaco’s twin brother and who had watched the race.
“I know you have your hands full,” Mary Lou Monaco wrote in an e-mail to her daughter, after the brother had been located, according to Bloomberg News.
Lisa wrote back at 1 a.m.
“Glad your days of lining the marathon route are over,” she wrote, evidently relieved that her mother was not at risk.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.