Fletcher Features

Combating the Cyber Threat: Hila Hanif (F09) and the Office of the Secretary of Defense

Hila Hanif, The Fletcher School

With the recent testimony by national intelligence leaders that cyber attacks and cyber espionage have supplanted terrorism as the top threat facing the United States, Hila Hanif is working harder than ever to help the world understand the depth and breath of the cyber domain.  

In her capacity as cyber policy advisor within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Hanif (MALD ’09) plays a key role in advising how cyber issues affect international defense policy and planning within the department itself. The Department of Defense has the mission to defend the nation from cyber attacks.  We’re working to make sure we have the right policies in place to support this aspect of national security.

 Hanif’s job requires her to understand and develop new defense concepts, then balance and translate both the technical and policy aspects in layman’s terms to bring about both understanding and comprehensive solutions.  

“It is our job to educate and advise our leadership and that of our partner nations on the most pressing cyber issues and their implications on national security,” she says. “It is a well-coordinated effort working closely with many partners, including both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.”

Her academic training at Fletcher prepared her to take a cross-disciplinary approach to problem solving and provided her with the skills necessary to break down complex situations and understand strategic concepts specific to each individual country she is working with.

On the global front, Hanif works closely with international partners - particularly defense ministries - to develop cyber strategy. This encompasses the various technical elements and extends to issues such as training a well-guarded, capable work force in the cyber domain. 

“How we think is more than just making sure an antivirus application is applied, but to make sure a whole strategy is in place,” she said. “The key to this is an open dialogue ensuring that all players are paying attention to cyber in terms of threats and policies.” 

The biggest challenge Hanif faces is keeping pace with technological innovation. 

“We must be ready to defend against cyber attack, but also be ahead of the curve on new, developing technologies,” she says. “So we must be in front of what is going on in private industry.”

Prior to attending Fletcher, Hanif worked in development for Cisco Systems to support higher education and capacity building in Afghanistan. This work required the blending of governments, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and the private sector and taught her how to proceed with projects and see practical results. It was this work that brought her to Fletcher and the decision to pursue a career in development.

While at Fletcher, however she became interested in national security through coursework and studying with professors William Martel and Richard Schultz. She then shifted her concentration. In those courses, she met many military fellows, which in turn sparked her interest in working for the Department of Defense.  

“There is so much to learn from the environment and people you meet at Fletcher,” she says, “and that experience is invaluable.”

Hanif advises Fletcher students to pursue their graduate work with an open mind and stretch themselves beyond what they think their interests are.  

“If a classmate is raving about a class that isn’t in your field of study,” she says, “take it anyway. It may lead to a whole new career field for you because that’s what happened to me.”