You Should Know… Chelsea Cohen

Photo by Jared Foretek.

Swapping coasts wasn’t too hard for Chelsea Cohen, 26. She moved from the Bay Area to Washington in 2010 to start at American University, going from a town where people “don’t bring up politics,” to where people say, “Why does everyone talk about politics all that time?”

But Cohen doesn’t mind. She’s a foreign affairs junkie who graduated from AU in 2014 before getting her master’s from Georgetown University in security studies. Today, she does intelligence work for the Air Force, but her first job in Washington was on a much different battlefield: Hebrew school.

How did you end up at Temple Micah?

My parents were like, “You shouldn’t get a job freshman year.” And then my dad flew out for business and was looking for a synagogue. He shows up for Friday night services and calls the next day to say, “I got you a job!”

How was it?

They put me with the overachieving kids my first year. They were funny because they’d try to get me off topic by asking these really philosophical questions. And I’m like, “I only have an hour. I want to have this conversation with you, because it’s pretty interesting that you’re only in fourth grade and you’re asking these questions. But now is not the time.”

Then they put me with the remedial kids and it felt like pulling teeth to get them to say anything.

Why did you want to study international affairs?

All of it was based in an Israel-Palestine interest, because I’d done the NFTY [Reform movement] travel program in high school. I was interested in the languages and the region and the only schools I looked at were small schools on the East Coast, the ones that tend to attract a lot of Jews. So D.C. was the only place that really made sense for that area of study and wanting to work in government.

What do you do for the Air Force now?

I work at the Civil Aviation Intelligence Analysis Center. Have you ever seen the Nick Cage movie “Lord of War?” His character is based on a guy in real life who’s smuggling arms. When he got arrested, we realized we weren’t watching what other countries were doing with their civilian planes. We figured, “Yeah we should probably do that.” So that’s why my agency exists now. We watch what other countries do with their civilian planes.

What would be an example of that?

Like, Iran uses their civilian planes to move troops and arms to Syria. It’s hard to discuss it in detail because of things being classified.

You spent an internship working in nuclear nonproliferation. How did you get interested in that?

So my hometown is right by the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California. They do a lot of nuclear work there, so basically everybody that went to my synagogue, they were all physicists. It’s an interesting environment. One of my friends’ dad growing up was a physicist and he would just disappear off to Russia for the weekend. We were like, “OK. Guess he’s gone.”

My mentor who got me into international relations also had a background in Russian affairs. She actually just got put on a detail to move to D.C. because Russia’s popular again. It was obviously big during the Cold War. When that ended, it was sort of unpopular for a while, but now she’s getting all kinds of calls. Nobody studied Russia in the last 20 years, so we don’t have any expertise.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the security world are?

When I first started working in the government, one of the first things I realized is that people who think there’s some big government plot to control everything are wildly misguided. Nobody really knows what’s going on, especially once you consider all the government contracting.

One of the first things they make you do when you start a job as a government employee is take an oath to uphold the Constitution. You kind of get the warm fuzzies when you do that. But I also did a brief stint in contracting and they don’t make you do that when you’re a contractor. It’s more like, “Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t get in a car with a government employee alone because it might look like you’re trying to make deals under the table.” Basically, communication is strained.

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