Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Professor Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault, SSP Director of Teaching

By: Antonia Ward, Reporter

Photo Credit: Rick Sincere

Professor Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault is Assistant Professor of Teaching for the Security Studies Program, having previously taught at the College of William & Mary. She has worked in the intelligence and defense sectors of the US government, and is an expert in terrorism, intelligence, international law, and torture. Her most recent book, How the Gloves Came Off: Lawyers, Policy Makers, and Norms in the Debate of Torture, was published in March 2017 and explores how the consensus against torture in the United States changed in the past twenty years. She recently sat down with Antonia Ward of the GSSR to discuss her career and her new book.

What is your favorite thing about being a Professor in the Security Studies Program and Georgetown in general?

I think my job as a professor is the greatest job in the world. My favorite thing about being a professor in the Security Studies Program is that everyone brings a different lens to the study of security; we have students from a wide range of backgrounds—the military, government, straight out of their undergraduate degree. The level of discourse is so engaging and I enjoy listening to what people think. What I like most about being a professor at Georgetown is the Jesuit approach to individual care and teaching that is at the heart of the pedagogical approach—it is extraordinary.

What do you find your most interesting class to teach and why?

That is a challenging pick. Each one is very different. In SEST-500, it’s like a freshman hall, the class you begin the program with and who you study for comps with. It’s a challenging course but so interesting to see how each student approaches IR theory. I am often blown away by the level of discussion in my terrorism classes. In the intelligence classes, I love to see the development of students’ self-confidence in their briefing and writing skills. I also love the 710 (thesis) class. To help students develop their own original work is extraordinary. Students get the opportunity to create something, which is very, very rare.

You completed your Masters in Security Studies at George Washington University. What first got you interested in the topic?

I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer. But during a US embassy summer internship, I was meant to be placed in the ambassador’s office but at the time (summer 2001) there was no US ambassador to France. Instead I was placed in the regional security office. It was an eye-opening experience; I got to learn about car bombs, wire taps, and critical infrastructure issues. I also wrote a long-term research project on al-Qaida’s threats in France. 9/11 occurred one month after I returned back to the States during my senior year at William & Mary. That year I took an international security class and I loved it, I knew it was what I had to do.

How would you describe your experience in the intelligence community in one word?

Challenging. I believe very strongly in public service and I think everyone should work at least once in government. I thought I would work in the Department of Defense forever. I really enjoyed my time there, and it very much suited my personality.

Your new book “How the Gloves Came Off: Lawyers, Policy Makers, and Norms in the Debate on Torture” has just been released. What inspired you to write this book?

This answer is twofold. The (torture) program haunted the Department of Defense; it was an abrogation of US identity. In my work in government at the time I saw many personally affected by the revelations. It is uniquely American norm to treat prisoners humanely, a principle harking back to the Revolutionary War under George Washington. When I was in government, I was not able to write this book and had my ‘government hat’ on, so to speak. I was inspired to write it because I wanted to know how the government allowed this torture to take place.

What do you hope the book will achieve?

I hope it will put into context the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and inform public discourse around torture. In October 2015, I sent the conclusion of my book to the publisher and, at that time, the norms around torture seemed much more solid than they do now. We are at a critical inflection point right now and the norm is at an uneasy place. Obama repudiated what Bush had done by executive order, but I was concerned that another leader with access and influence could interpret the norms differently. Currently, President Trump has some very troubling discourse on the Geneva Convention and concept of collective punishment.

What do you think the most pressing security/intelligence concern is for the US and the world in general?

Absolutely, US relations with Russia. Russian intentions and goals are very worrying right now. There is a history of the United States badly misinterpreting what Russia wants; George Kennan’s long telegram is a prime example of this during the Cold War.

If you could tell the Security Studies students one thing, what would it be?

Be open to opportunities and possibilities.

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