Stanford senior Sarah Kunis said she and other CISAC honors students were introducing themselves to some senior White House advisors when President Barack Obama walked in the room.
“I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping,” said Kunis. It was honor enough to have an hourlong sit-down with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, and Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco.
The CISAC Honors Students spend their senior year working on theses that focus on critical international security issues. They were eager to get the chance to talk to the three powerful Washington advisors.
The students had just been in the audience to hear Obama address a large Stanford and Silicon Valley gathering at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection on Feb. 13. They were then taken to a conference room in the same auditorium where Obama spoke.
“I was surprised to see Susan Rice’s nameplate, so I thought she was who the invitation referred to, but there was an empty chair with no nameplate, between her and Jarrett,” recalled Patrick Cirenza, another CISAC honors student and a research assistant for retired U.S. Gen. Jim Mattis, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Then Obama walked in the room. The students were stunned – and nervous.
“I remember how sweaty my palms were,” said Cirenza. “I already had a visceral reaction seeing him at the podium so you can only imagine being in the same room with him. His presence fills the room.”
Taylor Grossman, another CISAC honors student whose thesis looks at the incentives and payoffs of warning the public about terrorist threats, said the conversation started off with Obama asking them whether they might consider careers that would protect the digital domain.
“But then we branched out and talked about a lot of different things,” she said. “The situation in Syria, public warning systems, education, the civil-military divide. It was really a whole range of issues.”
Before being joined by Jarrett and Rice, the students spoke with Cheri Caddy, director for cybersecurity outreach and integration in the National Security Council, for about an hour.
“We asked her pretty frank questions about cybersecurity, North Korea … defensive and offensive capabilities, and getting students interested in the field,” said Grossman. “She was quite candid and provided her own opinions.”
Grossman is a research assistant for CISAC Co-Director Amy Zegart, who is also a senior fellow at Hoover and garnered a shout-out from the president during his keynote address, thanking her for helping to convene the summit.
Jarrett talked to the students about sexual assault on campus. It was the second time the honors students had met the Stanford alumna; they first met her during their two-week Honors College in Washington, D.C. before the start of their senior year.
Obama initially directed the conversation, focusing on cybersecurity. He then opened it up for questions on any topic.
Cirenza told the president his honors thesis evaluates the analogy between earlier nuclear deterrence and the development of cyber deterrence today.
“I told him I thought we are in the 1950s nuclear stage now with regards to cyber-deterrence,” he said. The president disagreed.
“He said, ‘That’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s the case, since there are gradations with cyber wars whereas nuclear warfare is more black and white.’”
Grossman asked the president about the role of the National Terrorism Advisory System, which replaced the color-coded Homeland Security system, and whether he envisioned a scenario in which the government would have to use it.
“He and Lisa Monaco focused on specific warning systems, which was interesting to me,” she said.
The topic turned to Syria when the president noticed that Kunis had brought along a copy of U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power’s book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”
“I asked why we are not intervening in Syria and why we are not fulfilling our Right to Protect (R2P) obligation,” said Kunis. “President Obama said that the situation there was heartbreaking and that everyone looked at the problem to figure out what we should do to stop the suffering, while evaluating our interests. We cannot intervene without having a plan for the future – and we can’t overthrow governments.”
Cirenza said Obama noted that there are routine calls to intervene in Syria, but few to intervene in other nations, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 5.4 million people have died from conflict-related causes since a civil war erupted in the central African nation in 1998.
President Obama also shared his view that he doesn't believe the United States would have been locked into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as long as it has if there were a mandatory national draft in place. He asked students what they thought of instituting such a draft.
Almost none thought it a good idea.
Overall, the students said, it was the most incredible day of their Stanford careers“It’s going to be hard to look forward to much else,” said Cirenza, who now has adjustments to make to his honors thesis. “Pretty much downhill from here. Thanks, Obama.”
Joshua Alvarez is a 2012 Stanford graduate and was a CISAC honors student.