On March 19, 2003, coalition forces invaded Iraq. Five days later, Rand Beers resigned from the National Security Council.
Beers, an unassuming counterterrorism expert, had served on the National Security Council staff under three presidents — two Republican and one Democratic. He regarded his work as apolitical, colleagues say, and adhered to the motto, “There’s no limit to how much you can get done if you’re willing to let someone else take the credit.”
But after two years as a special assistant to President Bush, Beers discreetly vacated his post.
“I did not agree with [Bush’s] decision to go into Iraq,” Beers says. “I thought that it was a distraction, a wrong turn, from the principal post-9/11 mission.”¦ There wasn’t a terrorism threat emanating from Iraq. The intelligence was thin and ultimately turned out to be nonexistent. I felt that I couldn’t ask people to come to work every day when I didn’t feel like I could give the president my full support. And I thought the president deserved somebody in the job who was prepared to do that, so I left.”
Ultimately, Beers’s opposition to the Iraq War compelled him to align himself with Bush’s chief political rival. One year after leaving the White House, Beers became an adviser to then-Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Today, with Iraq in chaos, Beers is doing what he wanted to do all along, but for a different administration. Earlier this year, Beers joined the Obama White House as deputy assistant to the president for homeland security. He was previously the acting secretary of the Homeland Security Department, a post he took over when Janet Napolitano retired from government service to lead the University of California system.
With a conservative haircut and an understated manner, the 71-year-old possesses the energy of a man three decades his junior. A former Marine who led a rifle company in combat during the Vietnam War, Beers is regarded by his colleagues as earnest, respectful, and proactive.
“Not only is he kind of a Renaissance man of security, but he has somehow avoided the overdose of cynicism that occurs in government service over a length of time,” Napolitano said. “He becomes a source of energy about what it is we can do, as opposed to what we cannot do.”
Notwithstanding his low-key demeanor, Beers boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of al-Qaida and its affiliates. Shortly after the 2009 case of the “underwear bomber” — in which a Nigerian national with ties to the terrorist network stashed plastic explosives in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit — Napolitano and Beers were cruising above North Africa on a flight to the United Arab Emirates. “The plane was low enough to see nomads crossing the desert,” Napolitano recalled. “Rand gave us a tutorial on the history of the area.”
Beers is also adept at serving as an intermediary between military brass and politicians. During the 2004 presidential campaign, some of Kerry’s aides were concerned that ex-military officers who had endorsed the candidate would be irked by Kerry’s statements about the Iraq War. “Beers handled the generals perfectly,” said Robert M. Shrum, a senior adviser to the campaign. “He treats people with enormous respect and that makes him very effective.”¦ You don’t always get that in campaigns.”
Although Beers has voted only once for a Republican — Spiro Agnew, who ran for governor of Maryland in 1966 — his first White House appointment came under President George H.W. Bush. Later, as assistant secretary of State from 1998 to 2002, Beers was an architect of Plan Colombia, an abortive attempt to eradicate the Colombian drug trade.
After Kerry lost in 2004, Beers and a handful of campaign aides established the National Security Network, which has since become an incubator for Democratic national security experts. Initially, the policy group was nothing more than Beers and two young assistants working out of his basement. (Those assistants, Moira Whelan and Ilan Goldenberg, are now serving in the State Department and the Pentagon, respectively.) The National Security Network’s credo was an explicit rebuke to President Bush’s foreign policy.
“We reject the Bush administration’s reckless, incompetent, and shortsighted policies that have emboldened our enemies, tarnished our moral standing, overstretched our military, and endangered our people,” reads a statement of principles on the group’s website. “It’s time to get back to basics — to combine a strong military with shrewd diplomacy, effective alliances, and commitment to our bedrock values.”
During the 2008 campaign, Beers served as an informal adviser to Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama, and he made headlines in June of that year when he questioned whether Sen. John McCain’s service during the Vietnam War — he was a POW in Hanoi from 1967 to 1973 — enhanced his ability to make national security decisions if elected president.
“We’re all more politicized than we were 10 years ago,” said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network. “It used to be that, in the national security arena, it was not at all unusual for someone to work for a moderate Republican, then a Democrat, then a moderate Republican. It wasn’t regarded with the same degree of shock and distrust. After 9/11, everything changed.”