John Cohen ’83 is connecting the dots on terror plots
The first job John D. Cohen ’83 P’17 landed after graduation was with the federal Naval Investigative Service in Los Angeles. As an agent, his work brought him into regular contact with local police, and he soon discovered he had a talent for chasing violent criminals and drug traffickers and working undercover, he told students on campus in November.
“I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from that, by the way, about my time spent at Connecticut College,” he said. “I just was good at it for some reason.”
Cohen turned out to be so good at sniffing out criminals and threats to public safety that he’s made a far-ranging career out of it. A much-sought-after expert on terror and other security issues since the 9/11 attacks, he’s advised presidents, governors, cabinet secretaries and other officials from both political parties. He currently serves as principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, and as a counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security. He leads the office because the undersecretary position is vacant.
Cohen was on campus last November as part of the Sundays with Alumni series of panel discussions. Sponsored by the Office of Alumni Relations, the series is designed to provide students career advice and opportunities to network with professionals in particular fields.
Cohen explained his current responsibilities include leading a team of approximately a thousand security analysts and other professionals. Their job: blend together mountains of information from law enforcement, the private sector, several federal agencies and other sources to create useful intelligence for Homeland Security operations at home and abroad.
The alumnus, who majored in history and minored in classical literature at the College, said his liberal arts education proved to be a great preparation for his career, and he gave a recent example.
Prior to a meeting with a senior government official from Turkey, he said, he was given the standard blue binder of briefing materials provided by other government agencies. He felt he needed more to understand the psychology of the person he would be meeting with, however. So he went back and reread the history of Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire.
The extra background often proves more useful than anything in the binder, he said.
“That comes from my experience at Connecticut College,” he said. “I have a better understanding of the historical perspective that citizens from other nations may place on current events. It helps me understand the world from their perspective, enabling more effective dialogue.”
February 27, 2014