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The Dartmouth
June 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Cyber-threats brought Vatis from Beltway to Hanover

When a visitor enters Michael Vatis' office at the Institute of Security Technology Studies, he reflexively scans his desk for red-bordered documents -- the government's standard indicator of classified information. While these documents are safely secured, two framed pictures stand out: the first, a Matisse print, the second, a photograph of the Department of Defense.

Vatis has held top positions at the Justice Department and in the General Counsel's Office at the Department of Defense. He's worked with Janet Reno, Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Currently, Vatis is serving as the director of the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth, a joint venture of the College and the federal government -- funded by a multi-million dollar government grant -- that works with issues surrounding the threat of cyber-attack.

He arrived in Hanover in March of 2001, a short while after he'd made the decision to end eight years of public service in favor of employment in the private sector. Vatis changed his mind, however, when he was asked to become the first director of the ISTS, which he describes as a "start-up" in the field of combating cyber-terrorism.

In light of his extensive resume, Vatis is remarkably young -- but his success is not surprising given the hard work he put into his education, a subject that he was quite modest about -- only after a bit of prodding did he revealed that he earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton University and went on to study at Harvard Law.

Vatis' interest in public affairs originated long before his time at Dartmouth, Harvard or even Princeton. He traced his desire to be involved in government to his elementary school days. His main interests, he said, are those surrounding issues of civil rights and liberties, and he has published papers about the the integration of public schools.

These interests came to the fore when Vatis got the opportunity to clerk for Ginsburg, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. and a leading advocate for equal rights for women. Vatis referred to Ginsburg as "the Thurgood Marshall of the women's rights movement."

Vatis moved on to work for Justice Marshall himself. Smiling, he recalled his luck in being able to have worked with the vocal civil rights advocate, whom Vatis considers his personal hero.

"It's like winning a World Series: you need to do well but you also need to be lucky," Vatis " a Yankees fan from the Bronx " said.

Supreme Court clerks were expected to read past opinions on similar cases, make recommendations as to how the justice should rule and write a first draft of the opinions. Some justices tend to edit those drafts more than others, Vatis said.

"They all have the clerks do research. Almost all have them write bench memos, how to rule on the case," he said.

Having a strong interest in civil rights might conflict with work in a government agency concerned with national security -- but Vatis doesn't see it that way.

"I think that's a big problem," he said of the view that civil liberty and national security are at least partially exclusive concepts.

"We obviously need to be concerned with our civil liberties and protecting those, but we also need to be realistic about the need to protect our national security, and I don't think the two need to be in conflict."

Vatis' work with national security began when he entered the general counsel's office at the Department of Defense in 1993, where he was exposed to the intricacies of foreign relations.

"When you get an inside look at defense issues, international issues, foreign policy, it kindled an interest in that stuff," he said casually. The interest took hold of Vatis, and it has yet to let him go.

After working at the Defense Department, he worked for Jamie Gorelick, who became Deputy Attorney General to Janet Reno during the Clinton administration.

His position at the Justice Department led him into the arena of cyber-security, which he began working on in 1994. Vatis drafted a national security bill entitled the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1995.

Cyber-security became a more prominent national issue after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Shortly thereafter, Vatis began organizing an inter-agency committee, per a directive of President Clinton, to "examine the vulnerability of the nation's infrastructure and secure those infrastructures from attack."

The group was composed of officials from the FBI, CIA, Department of Defense and the White House.

"The Critical Infrastructure Working Group defined critical infrastructure as those services that underlie and are vital to the nation's security and economy," he said.

Vatis described examples of critical infrastructure, including electrical power, telecommunications, banking and financial services, gas and water pipelines and engineering services.

An attack on the computer systems of any one of these facets of the national infrastructure could create a domino effect, affecting other systems and bringing the nation to a standstill, Vatis said.

"The nation's critical infrastructures are vulnerable to physical attack, like at Oklahoma City," Vatis said, "but they're also vulnerable to computer attack because these infrastructures rely on computers in a way they never have before. The nation needed to have a strategy not just to deal with physical attacks, but with computer attacks."

As a result, the ISTS was founded, and Vatis relocated to rural New Hampshire.

"It takes getting used to living in a small town, but there are some wonderful attractions to living up here," he said. Outdoor activities such as snowboarding and white water kayaking keep him busy when he's not in his office, as does the vigorous lifestyle of such an academic community, but Vatis does still miss living in a city.

"Ultimately I'm a city person at heart," he said, "but I find that there are a lot of people like me up here."