Former NSA and CIA general counsel has made it her mission to strengthen national security through civic education
Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker has spent decades dealing with national security. After being general counsel of both the National Security Agency and the CIA, she pivoted from government to education—first in the University of Wisconsin System, then as dean of the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. All the while, she maintained her national security involvement on the Senior Advisory Group under several Directors of National Intelligence; as a founding member of the Public Interest Declassification Board and the National Academies Intelligence Community Studies Board; and Parker chaired the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security, with which she created the Journal of National Security Law & Policy. Last year, the standing committee awarded her the Morris I. Liebman Award in Law and National Security.
Today, Parker’s focus isn’t spies, surveillance or foreign governments. It’s education—specifically, inadequate civic education from elementary school to graduate school. When Americans don’t understand the foundations of their democracy, they are susceptible to misinformation and manipulation, she says. In her view, civic education is a national security imperative.
Her current mission: expanding national understanding of the importance of civic education, which is work she does with the Defending Democratic Institutions Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank where she is a nonresident senior adviser.
Q. The Defending Democratic Institutions Project was initially formed to address the risks faced by the U.S. judicial system from Russian disinformation attacks. How did this lead to promoting civics education?
A. Our initial goal was alerting judges to the threat poor computer security posed for the judicial system. Next, we tried to bring bar organizations into the discussion. We hoped they would represent courts when judicial ethics barred judges from defending themselves and their opinions. But this led to a question: Even if lawyers agreed to support judicial actions, would the public understand their explanations? What did they know about the U.S. legal system that judges and lawyers are committed to support? From a 2003 Commission for an Impartial Judiciary, I learned that surveys showed the public didn’t understand what an “independent” judiciary meant. This phrase suggested not a separate branch of government but a “runaway judiciary.” This suggested a problem. To understand the public’s knowledge of government and history, we contacted experts in civic education. We learned that for decades, beginning with the launch of Sputnik, fears that the U.S. was behind in STEM topics produced an increased focus on science education—but tragically, often by taking time away from civic education. The statistics were grim: Dramatic reductions in classroom time for civic education had led to dismal national assessments. There was a systemic problem. We at CSIS realized that this decline in civic education impacted every issue we’d been exploring. We looked for ways to help, eventually focusing particularly on educating business leaders. We hope by increasing attention to inadequate civic education, changes at the national level may be possible. Civic education is essential to national security.
Q. How did you become involved in national security?
A. My career began doing civil rights litigation in the Deep South. My two law school summers were with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in Jackson, Mississippi, and Atlanta. I met my first husband at a Law Students Civil Rights Research Council summer orientation. The attraction was immediate, so after graduation I joined him in Atlanta, where he was a co-operating attorney with the fund. There were no jobs for women, but I was fortunate in getting a Reginald Heber Smith fellowship. When my husband died after three years of marriage, the shock pushed me—hardly a self-assured lawyer—to demand that Jack Greenberg, the fund’s legendary director, hire me to replace my husband. I little imagined I would take over 100 civil rights cases.
Q. Civil rights, like national security, was not a typical path for a woman law student in the 1960s. How did you get from the University of Michigan to Mississippi?
A. My interest in civil rights developed slowly. I grew up in Detroit, a very segregated city, in a privileged world. Thankfully, my mother, a social studies teacher, was unusually open-minded. When I read Black Like Me, it became my lens for interpreting the civil rights struggle on TV. The few Black students I met while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan were another influence, although in law school there were no Black students and only eight women in my class of 350. At law school, I felt like an outsider, like when male classmates asked questions like, “Are you here like the other women, to get a husband?” So I made myself scarce. But when the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council visited, two of us volunteered for a summer position. Everyone else went to Wall Street.
Q. How did that lead you to national security and not, say, to a position at the Justice Department?
A. It would have been an honor to join the Justice Department, but instead I was invited to head a legal services organization in New Haven. About this time, both of my parents died. I was a widow with a toddler, and family became more important. To join my in-laws, I moved to Washington, joining the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. When a colleague left, I was asked to continue his cases on sex discrimination in employment. My trial experience increased and, thanks to two Supreme Court arguments and federal appellate and trial litigation, other job offers followed. Even now this surprises me, since for years I was terrified about public speaking. But taking over my husband’s caseload, I learned quickly to deal with the challenges of litigation. Of course, the fund provided remarkable support, but it was hard being one of the only women to appear in federal court day after day. Eventually, I lost my fear. This litigation experience led me to the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition. But the man who recruited me left almost immediately, becoming NSA’s general counsel, part of an effort to improve legal advice at all intelligence agencies. When he left [NSA], he recommended me as his replacement.
Q. So that’s how you began your career in national security?
A. No—I turned it down! I joined an international law firm that was just starting a litigation practice. Almost immediately, settlement of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis occurred, creating the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal. U.S. companies filed a huge number of arbitration cases to recover losses from the Iranian Revolution. I was thrown into international arbitration—a disaster for my personal schedule. My daughter slept in my office repeatedly. This situation was untenable. When NSA called again, I said yes. Anything seemed better than international arbitration. I had no idea of what this meant for my career.
Q. You were general counsel at the NSA and CIA with a senior legal position at the U.S. State Department in between. Did you ever feel like you had to act a certain way or manage a certain way because you were a woman in charge—and often the first or among the first?
A. Not really. But I was probably unusual. As one example: My serious depression after the deaths of my husband, parents and a grandmother in just five years, plus several cross-country moves led me to psychoanalysis. I found psychoanalysis remarkably helpful. At the CIA, observing the pressure many experienced from the tension of their work, I wanted to help. So I developed a plan. If it was comfortable, I mentioned my own helpful experience with psychoanalysis. This apparently was quite unusual. As now, many were anxious talking about mental health. When one senior person with problems asked me to describe my experience, I think my plan may have worked.
Q. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to be a mentor for other women?
A. I do—but for everyone I work with. I like to try and match each individual’s abilities and personality with the opportunities I see to help them maximize their opportunities.
Q. You’ve done so much as a lawyer, and we haven’t even talked about your leadership roles in academia or your time leading the State Bar of California. Was there some sort of a through line you looked for that helped you to decide what to do next or when to pivot sectors?
A. I want to enjoy the work I do. Money hasn’t been important. I was fortunate—I can’t think of when I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. Opportunities to make a difference are particularly important; often they are a surprise. Being a law school dean and heading the State Bar of California are examples.
Q. It certainly seems you were motivated by service.
A. Service is the source of my pleasure as a lawyer. I have been lucky to use the rule of law to make a difference. One exciting time was at the CIA. When the Soviet Union dissolved, opportunities arose to help emerging democracies understand how intelligence activities can function under the rule of law. I remember when the new South African government asked for a meeting. They surprised us with their preparation, mentioning specific CIA statutory authorities. They clearly appreciated how the rule of law must operate in a democracy. None [of them was a lawyer], but each understood the rule of law required an independent judiciary. Now, watching the rule of law eroding in so many countries, it’s a sobering time for everyone who cares about the rule of law, both domestically and internationally.
Q. Which brings us back to the importance of education and your work with the Defending Democratic Institutions Project.
A. Exactly. The legal relationship between national and domestic security is a continuing concern—both understanding it and helping others to do so.
This story was originally published in the October-November 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Threat Assessments: Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker has made it her mission to strengthen national security through civic education.”