Brett Freedman Advises Senate Intelligence Committee

Trying to bridge the public, private divide

By Jon Gorey

On a late December day in 1988, Brett Freedman JD’07 and his family were readying for an overnight flight to Israel, where they were planning to celebrate 13-year-old Brett’s bar mitzvah. As they packed their bags, anticipation turned to anxiety when they heard that a passenger jet, Pan-Am Flight 103, had exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland—killing all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground in one of the most deadly airline bombings in history.

“We were watching it on television when the van came to pick us up to go to the airport,” Freedman recalled. As a suburban Boston middle-schooler, Freedman says he didn’t grasp the full dynamics of what was happening at the time, beyond the burning wreckage on the TV. But he could sense and understand his parents’ fear, concern—and resolve. “My mom was upset, and my dad said, ‘There’s nothing more important than to actually do this now.’”

Freedman didn’t decide in that moment to pursue a career in national security, but the experience was influential.

After earning his juris doctor at Suffolk in 2007, Freedman went on to provide legal counsel at both the National Security Agency and the National Counter-Terrorism Center in Washington, DC. Now, he serves as minority counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), which oversees the entire U.S. intelligence community.

Working for Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s Democratic vice chairman, one of Freedman’s top priorities in most years is to help get the bipartisan Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA) through Congress—the critical legislation that authorizes funding and oversight for the nation’s powerful intelligence apparatus.

Security threats have evolved since the Lockerbie bombing, of course, with cybersecurity and election interference among the committee’s current concerns. “There’s certainly a public knowledge of the efforts by the Russian Federation and other countries to interfere [with the election] in one way, shape, or form,” Freedman said in October, citing as examples the spread of false narratives and innocuous-sounding disinformation that proliferate on social media.

Freedman isn’t on the front lines of election cybersecurity and doesn’t consider himself an especially technical person. “But in order to be able to put forth policy, you need to understand the innards of what’s happening,” he said, so he’s had to familiarize himself with technologies like the 5G wireless standard, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing—with some help from the Congressional Research Service. He also relies on relationships he’s built with trusted academics, think tanks, and private industry leaders.

Recognizing the importance of these relationships, Freedman pushed for the most recent IAA to include a public-private talent exchange, which would allow intelligence officials to spend a year or more immersed at a company in the private sector and vice versa.

“One of my passions is trying to bridge the public and private divide that exists between, say, Silicon Valley and Washington,” he said. Through the pilot exchange program, a computer scientist at the NSA could, for example, spend a year or two working at Google—honing their skills and gaining a better understanding of its culture—while maintaining their government tenure and benefits. Meanwhile, an engineer from the tech industry could take time to learn how the government operates—and how to get things done within its bureaucracy—without leaving their job.

Freedman hopes that this cross-pollination of talent could help the two camps, which are often at odds, get past what they read about each other in the news. These exchange workers can “meet the people, see what the mission is, and get a sense of the challenges facing them,” he said.

Freedman also hopes the program could open up the intelligence community to a more diverse talent pool. If the intelligence community as an analytical body does not reflect the composition of the country and the globe, decision makers are going to miss critical nuances, he warned.

Imperfect as U.S. national security is, Freedman cherishes his role in keeping people safe, and feels fortunate to be part of something much bigger than either himself or politics.

“I’ve been proud to be a part of one of, if not the only, remaining truly bipartisan congressional committees, where we put our noses down, look at the issues, and continue to work together to try to find solutions,” he said.

Brett Freedman Photograph courtesy of Aviva Krauthammer

“One of my passions is trying to bridge the public and private divide that exists between, say, Silicon Valley and Washington”


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