One of the parents frantically trying to track down her children after the Boston Marathon bombing was Mary Lou Monaco.
After she learned that that her son, Christopher, who had watched the race along the route, was safe, she sent an e-mail to his twin sister in Washington -- Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s new counterterrorism adviser.
“I know you have your hands full,” she wrote to her daughter.
At almost 1 a.m., Mrs. Monaco got a response: “Glad your days of lining marathon route are over,” wrote her 45-year-old daughter, herself a former spectator of the race. “It’s awful.”
The bloody explosions in her hometown have become the first test of Monaco’s ability to guide the White House -- and the country -- through a terrorism crisis. With her background as a prosecutor and investigator of terrorism dating back to the earliest years the nation confronted the issue, it’s her job to advise the president on how to manage the crisis, both publicly and internally.
“She’s brand new on the job, and this is an extremely significant event,” said J. Patrick Rowan, a former assistant attorney general, who worked with Monaco during President George W. Bush’s administration when she was at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “In that sense, it’s got to be a baptism under fire for her.”
The stakes are high: Obama must show a nervous public that his administration is in control of this crisis. Yet Monaco, too, is being evaluated. With FBI Director Robert Mueller said to be eyeing retirement when his term ends in September, she’s frequently mentioned as a possible replacement, putting her in position to become the first female head of the bureau.
It’s a crisis that seems almost tailor-made for her background. Though largely unknown to most of the public, Monaco has been at the center of American efforts to fight terrorism for much of Obama’s time in Washington.
As chief of staff at the FBI, she worked with Mueller to transform the agency from a law enforcement body into a national security organization focused on preventing the next attack. And as an assistant attorney general for national security, she was the first woman to lead the Justice Department’s national security prosecutions, a role that involved her in issues surrounding the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
“Every morning for the last several years, I have sat alongside talented analysts, agents and national security professionals and reviewed intelligence and assessed how the country is responding to the latest threat streams,” Monaco told a Senate panel at her May 2011 confirmation hearing to become an assistant attorney general. “To combat them, we must be aggressive and agile in our approach, and we must do so consistent with the rule of law.”
That work has built Monaco a network of powerful allies. At a party held her in her honor last week at the Justice Department, Monaco celebrated her latest promotion with some of her oldest colleagues, including Attorney General Eric Holder, Mueller, and White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler.
Five days later, on the morning after the attacks, Monaco sat on a beige couch in the Oval Office between her two former bosses -- Mueller and Holder -- and briefed the president on the bombings.
“There is value in the fact that she’s talking to people that she’s talked to hundreds of times before,” said Rowan. “There is a common vocabulary there.”
She learned the language of counterterrorism alongside Obama, who struggled to respond to attacks early in his first term. After the attempted bombing of a plane on Christmas Day in 2009, Obama took three days to comment publicly, leading to criticism from congressional Republicans. At the time, she was working as a senior justice official in charge of national security issues.
With this latest attack, Obama appeared in the White House briefing room just hours after the incident, in time for the evening news.
Monaco spends most of her days in a small, cave-like office down the hall from the Situation Room. She’s leading the very same conference calls she once participated in, presiding over dozens of officials from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, CIA and scores of other agencies coordinating the response to the attack. Monaco’s role is to funnel the most critical information to the president.
“In a time of crisis like this, it’s a 24-7 job,” said former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, who also worked with Monaco’s predecessor, John Brennan, now Obama’s CIA director. “I remember days when John slept in his office, or on the couch, or not at all.”
In a statement to Bloomberg yesterday, Brennan praised his replacement.
“Her work as a prosecutor taught her to get the facts first and to approach matters with the purpose and thoughtfulness necessary to advise the President on terrorism issues,” he said. “I can’t think of a better person for the job.”
Yet while Brennan was known for his CIA credentials and knowledge of Arabic, Monaco is praised for a workmanlike style that is more facilitator than ringleader.
Monaco served for almost two years as Mueller’s chief of staff at the FBI -- a position notorious in national security circles for the short stay of its inhabitants because of the director’s never-stop work ethic. Monaco could match him step for step, said John Bellinger, a top legal adviser with the NSC and State Department during the Bush administration.
“They are cut from the same cloth -- very dedicated, endlessly hard working and meticulous,” said Bellinger, who first worked with Monaco in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration and is now at Arnold & Porter LLC.
A former government prosecutor who won acclaim for her work as a key player on the Enron task force, Monaco approaches an attack with an eye on the case the government will eventually have to build against the attacker.
“She’s tenacious about facts,” said Frances Townsend, a former homeland-security adviser to Bush who worked with Monaco throughout her career. “She will build this through the lens of building a prosecution.”
Raised in Newton, Massachusetts, before attending Harvard University, Monaco was a runner herself, her mother recalled. While she never ran the Boston Marathon, she joined her parents and two brothers to line the route while a third brother, Peter, participated in the race.
Classmates from the Winsor School remember her as “sort of politic” and not really choosing sides in the cliques of the all-girls prep school, recalled Juliet Eastland, a writer from Brookline, who attended high school with Monaco.
“Who’d have thought that attending an all-girls school would have prepared me so well for a basically all-male environment?” Monaco said, when she returned to her school to deliver a keynote address at the 2011 Alumnae Weekend.
Unmarried, with no children, Monaco has spent almost all of her professional life in government. She first came to the Justice Department during her time at the University of Chicago law school, as an intern in the office of Legislative Affairs.
“I have had the pleasure of knowing her since 1998,” said Holder, when he formally installed Monaco as an assistant attorney general in 2011. “Ever since then, I have relied on her advice, sound judgment, and expertise -- and, whenever possible, taken credit for her excellent ideas.”
Equally valued is her discretion. Mary Lou Monaco said her daughter keeps the details of her work so private that she knows better than to ask anymore, though her husband still prods his daughter to little effect.
“She rolls her eyes and says, ‘Dad, you know I can’t talk about that,’” she said.