Former CIA officer Kristen Edwards Marquardt ’97 has battled dark scourges ranging from arms dealers to weapons of mass destruction. Next up: cyber attacks.
By the time she turned 24, Kristen Edwards Marquardt ’97 had enjoyed her fair share of adventure. Before coming to Episcopal as a sophomore, she had lived virtually her entire life abroad, in Saudi Arabia. While at Brigham Young University, she paused during the traditional four-year march to a degree whenever irresistible opportunities popped up. Like working for a Broadway theater company. And mentoring inner-city children in the District. And spending 18 months in Slovenia on a Mormon mission.
Later, as she completed her master’s in international relations and security studies, a friend suggested yet one more adventure: Join the CIA.
The idea struck her as an incredible opportunity to serve her country, but also a chance to travel the world and do some challenging, fun things. Her application — she sent it via the Internet, with no inside connections to help get her noticed — led to nearly 10 years in the agency as a case officer and plenty of exciting, fulfilling work.
In her first years, she was assigned to counterproliferation, where, among other things, she recruited spies to help stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. “I chased arms dealers, nuclear weapons programs, chemical weapons — really shady, bad people.” Later she moved into counterterrorism and spent time in the war zones, where she was taught to defend herself if her life was in peril.
After leaving the agency in 2015, Marquardt stepped into the policy arena, bringing her on-the-ground perspective to debates on international affairs and national security — first as a senior advisor to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, and then as a senior counselor to the secretary of homeland security. Today, she has moved into the private sector, where she heads cyber strategy for Bank of America.
Marquardt lives in McLean with her husband, Daniel, a former BYU defensive lineman and now chairman of Poepoe Foundation a organization dedicated to improving the lives of native Hawaiians. They have two daughters, Alia, 10, and Ellie, 7. Marquardt came to The Holy Hill recently to talk with seniors about her career and offer some life lessons. She also spoke with the magazine.
YOU SPENT YOUR ENTIRE CHILDHOOD ABROAD, YET IT WAS YOUR LOVE OF COUNTRY THAT LED YOU TO THE CIA.
My dad is a chemical engineer and worked for Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company. We lived in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia from the time I was probably 3 months old until I came to Episcopal.
I think there’s something about growing up overseas as an expatriate, particularly in a place where freedoms are not really available, that makes you so deeply grateful to be an American. Most people who live in the United States never know what it’s like to live someplace where you’re not entitled to express an opinion. As a woman, I wasn’t even allowed to drive a car. In the States, you know that your voice matters, that your thoughts matter, that your participation in government matters.
At the same time, I really love a good adventure. So the CIA offered the opportunity to serve my country and what seemed like a great adventure.
YOU’RE AN ACTIVE MEMBER OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTERDAY SAINTS. HOW DID YOU RECONCILE YOUR WORK WITH THE CIA WITH YOUR FAITH?
When I joined the CIA, I was super excited. I thought, “I’m going to protect my country and travel the world and collect intelligence for the president and policymakers. I’m going to save lives and make the world a better place.”
At the same time, I was going to have to lie — a lot. I lied to everyone about everything. I lied about where I worked, I lied about what my name was.
I did some soul-searching before I took the job and asked myself, “How do I make this work?” I decided that my choice was acceptable to God and acceptable to me because of why I was doing it. But I also felt like it was really important that by accepting that reality, I had to be scrupulously honest in the rest of my life. All those little white lies we tell — “Oh, I can’t make it tonight; I’m super busy” — I decided I couldn’t afford those. My mom says the pendulum swung a little too far, to brutal honesty, but I decided I had to be really honest with myself, with my family.
I also committed to finding ways to serve others. Outside my job, I filled the other part of my life with service and altruism. I committed to all of these things, and that still remains a big part of my life today. I serve regularly in my church and community. I have a particular interest in working with young adults and youth so that they feel heard and loved. I have been teaching a youth Sunday school class for most of the past five years. I love mentoring and am active in several professional groups for women.
Having spent most of my career in male-dominated, “good old boy”-type organizations, I relish the opportunity to support other women.
HOW HAVE THE THREATS TO THE UNITED STATES CHANGED SINCE YOU JOINED THE AGENCY?
I joined in 2006, the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the time, foreign terrorist groups generally represented the biggest threat to our security. Even in more recent years, ISIS ably demonstrated that given a vacuum and ungoverned space, people who like chaos will thrive. Now, however, we recognize that while foreign terrorist groups are a threat to everyone, some nation states like Russia and China will always be significant threats to our security and to world order.
At the same time, there has been a realization in the last couple of years that domestic terrorism — that hate as a whole — is a problem. Really, there are many people who espouse hate and violence as a means to disrupt the world order and create something else. And they are all a threat to us, regardless of their ideological drivers.
Sadly some people radicalize to pure violence and then seek out an ideology that will justify their desire to kill and hurt. So there’s a different landscape today than when I started; there are now multiple threat drivers, overlapping threat vectors, and increasing layers of complexity and connectivity.
YOUR WORK IS NOW FOCUSED ON PROTECTING A LARGE FINANCIAL INSTITUTION, BANK OF AMERICA, FROM CYBER ATTACKS. ARE WE AS A COUNTRY PREPARED FOR THAT KIND OF ATTACK?
Certainly, we’re paying more attention to the cyber threat. Congress is devoting more resources to it and giving greater power to those trying to prevent cyber attacks. There’s also a greater professionalization of the field.
But the cyber threat is growing, and changing. In years past, a limited number of countries had the tools and expertise to conduct catastrophic attacks. But tools have leaked, methodologies have been shared, and common enemies make for strange friendships. Identification and attribution are increasingly difficult.
Additionally, technology and innovation continue to alter the landscape. Artificial intelligence is coming online and quantum computing is advancing, and the leaps that are going to come out of that will be exponential. In another 15 years or so, with the way technology is going, you will be able to crack encryptions that were previously thought uncrackable.
For individuals, emerging technology is going to make use of all the data that we freely give away. Eventually, all these new technologies will be able to put together a very targeted picture of what you respond to — colors, textures, shopping preferences, food, smells — and they’ll tailor that experience to you. On the one hand, you might say, “Oh, cool.” But think of all the things you’re going to miss out on as technology slims down your world based on your biases and your preferences. These technologies will think for you, and the world you are exposed to will get smaller and smaller.
IN YOUR WORK, YOU MUST TAKE STOCK EVERY DAY OF SOME VERY UGLY AND DANGEROUS THINGS. HOW DO YOU MANAGE THAT PERSONALLY?
I choose to be happy. That’s what I tell my kids every day: Happiness is a choice. Even in a war zone, without family in the middle of nowhere, with limited water, you can still have fun.
Also, I generally think most people are good. I think things are always going to turn out well. They are probably not going to end up like how you imagined them. For example, if you had asked me out of high school what I thought it my life would look like, this is not it. But this is way better.