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The Privacy Advisor | NSA General Counsel Leaves for New Job, Takes a Few Insights With Him Related reading: A Roundup of Obama’s Surveillance Changes



Rajesh De has left his post as National Security Agency (NSA) general counsel, where he's worked since 2012 and now joins any number of government workers who have left for stints in private practice.

De landed at DC-based Mayer Brown, which is in fact a homecoming of sorts for him, as he worked at the firm as recently as six years ago. Since that time, he's worked at the Department of Justice as a deputy assistant attorney general (AG), as well as serving as counsel to the 9/11 Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States and as special bipartisan staff to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. There, he was a primary drafter and negotiator for intelligence reform legislation implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations for a director of national intelligence and a National Counterterrorism Center. 

In 2009, he took the job as the president's staff secretary and deputy assistant in the Obama administration. He was responsible for "managing all the paper that goes to the president to make sure decisions are queued up for him properly,"  with any potential questions already answered, stakeholders' views reflected, etc., De explained in an interview with The Privacy Advisor.

De moved to the NSA as general counsel in the spring just before the Snowden revelations would hit. It's given him some pretty good perspective on what the word "busy" means. 

"I think I'm probably one of the few people in DC who kind of looks back on my time at the White House as a time of relative calm in terms of the job they'd take next," he said, laughing a bit. But he got a whole lot of great experience in crisis management, which he sees as being something important he'll take to his next role. While he'll lead the firm's global privacy and security practice and will focus on cybersecurity, his responsibilities will also include working with clients on conflicts, government controversies, federal investigations and working with state AGs and other regulators. If there's anything he can claim he's experienced in, surely it's government controversies, investigations and working with regulators. 

"Lots of lawyers out there say they can deal with crisis management," De said, but, without question, there are few of them that have dealt with it on the scale he has. 

But his time at the NSA as the principal advisor to the agency's director wasn't as anxiety-evoking as one might imagine when one hears the term, "general counsel at the NSA." De said he was one player among many leaders and the agency took direction from the White House, the Pentagon and the Hill at large. "At the NSA, it's very collaborative," he said. But he admits that in June 2013 his job changed from what you'd sort of expect of a general counsel's role—running an office of about 100 people, not unlike the way you'd run any law firm—to one in which he was constantly juggling that role in one hand and, in the other, engagement with the press, Capitol Hill and other senior policy-makers who were looking for answers about government surveillance. After the Snowden revelations hit, the job became much more public-facing than he anticipated it being, and he said it was important that he be able to communicate with the public. 

"I certainly had not done a lot of that before," he said. "I hope I did it well." 

He said three years is a pretty average amount of time for a person to spend in the role, and after about six years in the Obama administration, it felt like a natural time to move on. 

"I really wanted to focus on cyber and data privacy and security issues," he said. "It's an exciting time to do that. Cyber is one of those areas that requires a very complex approach both in government and in the private sector, given that the communications infrastructure serves both. I think (cyber) is a particular area where having some experience in both government and in the private sector is beneficial." 

Asked what he'd take from his work at the NSA to his new job, he said that while most people think he's been privy to some very secret information, that's not the case. What his experience in the administration has given him, however, is a "pretty good window into decision-making at the most senior levels of government—whether it be the executive branch or the legislative branch or judiciary or the foreign surveillance court," he said. He's now got a heightened "understanding of how decisions are made and the perspective of those making the decisions, which can only help inform when advising clients on difficulties or situations they may need to deal with." 

He said coming home to Mayer Brown will see him managing about 30 lawyers globally on the privacy and cyber team, and the firm plans to double that number within the next four years. 


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