Whitefish, Montana, is the part-time home of a noted white supremacist. In 2016, after his mother got into a public scrap with a Jewish real estate agent, neo-Nazis unleashed a barrage of anti-Semitic threats on social media, including calls to “take action” against Jews and plans for an armed march through town. The march didn’t happen, but the “troll storm,” as the media called it, left Whitefish residents rattled. Last year, members of a team from the Rutgers Institute for Secure Communities (RISC) stepped in.  

“They were criminal justice and security experts who met with Whitefish law enforcement and community leaders to talk through the issues,” says Elie Honig, executive director of RISC. “They played out different scenarios and how to react. They helped law enforcement prepare for those scenarios and let the community know, ‘These people are here to protect you.’” 

Bias incidents, cyberattacks, acts of domestic terrorism: the threats to local and national security seem endless. But RISC is defusing tensions and providing preventative measures. The center is led by Honig RC’97 and alumna Ava Majlesi, the institute’s associate director. Honig, who is also a CNN analyst, is former director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District  of New York. Majlesi RC’03, NLAW’07, SPAA’12 served as the associate director for the Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security at Rutgers.

Honig and Majlesi discuss RISC, their histories at Rutgers, and the thorny issue of balancing democracy with the secretive nature of intelligence gathering.   

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What is RISC and what does it do? 

ELIE HONIG: Rutgers Institute for  Secure Communities is an umbrella entity whose primary goal is pushing Rutgers to the forefront of criminal justice and national security issues. There are three components. 

The Center for Critical Intelligence Studies is building an academic program offering a minor in critical intelligence studies and is a federally designated Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence.  

The Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience is a group of subject matter experts who travel the United States and Europe to facilitate partnerships between law enforcement and at-risk communities vulnerable to a range of attacks, from bias incidents to mass terrorism. We also sponsor academic trips abroad. 

The Center on Policing essentially provides policy and technology advice and guidance to New Jersey police departments. 

RM: Why is Rutgers well suited for these responsibilities?

EH: Rutgers’ strength is also what makes Rutgers unique—the diversity of the student body. The students taking courses in our Center for Critical Intelligence Studies come from around the country. We’re also located near New York and accessible to Washington, D.C., the two primary centers for this kind of work.  

AVA MAJLESI: One reason we’ve received more than $3 million in federal grants is because of our diversity. We teach students necessary skills and help them maximize professional opportunities in the intel community, with an eye on diversity. That includes academic disciplines— students with computer science backgrounds, knowledge of artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, even psychology. 

RM: What kinds of jobs can they get after graduating? 

AM: There are 16 intelligence agencies that fall under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and opportunities at the state and local levels as well. And there are private-sector opportunities—companies hiring people to work in global-security operation centers. 

RM: Explain what the Miller Center, which is part of RISC, did in Whitefish.

Family members of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas


Among its responsibilities, the Rutgers Institute for Secure Communities works with federal, state, and local agencies to help preempt mass shootings such as the one in El Paso, Texas, on August 3, 2019, that claimed 22 lives.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images News

EH: Whitefish is a high-volatility town because they’ve had problems with white supremacists. It’s a good example of the kind of community we try to get involved in, where you have a potential threat coming up organically and an at-risk community or population.

From 2012 to 2018, I was in the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, and we did community resiliency work. In 2014, there were incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and later in Baltimore; then high-profile police shootings in New Jersey. So, I went to countless meetings throughout New Jersey—in church basements, community centers, and police departments—and heard the concerns of people with different backgrounds. The model works.

RM: Can you measure the effects of these programs?

AM: It’s difficult to prove definitively that this work has stopped something from happening. But in the communities that we’ve worked with, including those abroad, like Brussels, the anecdotal evidence is that we’re having a major positive impact.

EH: The Miller Center, which has been funded primarily by Paul Miller NCAS’60, NLAW’62, also sponsors educational symposia overseas. For example, every year, we partner with the International March of the Living, a Holocaust education organization. This past April, the group included deans from colleges around the country. Once a year, we put on a symposium, have a survivor of the Holocaust speak, and participate in the march at Auschwitz. 

RM: And what are the responsibilities of the Center on Policing? 

EH: The goal is to provide training, guidance, and technology to New Jersey police departments. Its biggest project is helping with the federal monitorship of the Newark Police Department. Under President Obama, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the department, which had a long history of pattern-and-practice issues, meaning racially disproportionate stops, arrests, and racial profiling. So according to this monitorship, Newark agrees to reevaluate and redevelop its training, policies, record-keeping, and use of technology. The center has been working for a couple of years to facilitate the process.   

RM: Is RISC addressing immigration issues in this country? 

EH: This is where RISC’s public profile comes into play. I cover the issue in media outlets, give commentary on CNN; I’ve done pieces on DACA [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy], for instance. I try to educate  people and offer opinions. On the subject of ICE roundups, and immigration policies, I was critical of the Mississippi situation [where 680 documented workers were arrested on the first day of school].  I thought it was political grandstanding. We’re using this platform to raise public awareness about what’s happening in this country with immigration.

RM: As a media analyst, you’ve covered the Mueller investigation and its aftermath. Is that role as a representative of RISC or based on your expertise?

EH: Both. It’s important that Rutgers has national visibility, and it’s been a fortunate confluence that the biggest criminal justice and national security story of the past several decades occurred this year. So, it’s a perfect opportunity to a) display and utilize our expertise and b) raise the profile of Rutgers in the national security and criminal justice world.

RM: Is there a conflict between the openness of American society and the secretive nature of intelligence gathering?

AM: That theme runs throughout the  “Introduction to Critical Intelligence  Studies” course. Can we balance this need for inherent secrecy within the intelligence community with the need to uphold Constitutional rights? My answer is, it’s complicated. 

We, as Americans, have the right to question and be critical of our government. So, from my perspective, it’s important we ensure that these students thinking about jobs in intelligence have the skills they need. But, as a lawyer, it’s also important they know the value of protecting privacy rights and civil liberties before they enter this field.

RM: How important is collaboration among various parties to national security?

EH: Our model is not, “We know everything; we’re going to come in and tell you how to do it.” Our model is, “We’re going to bring subject matter experts together with the most directly impacted communities and have them exchange ideas.” That is the best path to progress.

RM: Given your family backgrounds and experiences as students at Rutgers, your leadership of RISC is a natural. Ava?

AM: I’m the first in my family born in the United States. My parents came from Iran in the mid-1970s. My brother, Nima Majlesi RC’98, went to Rutgers before I did, so the university was an obvious choice. I was a political science and psychology major and then went to Rutgers Law School in Newark and had a great internship at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. That was life-changing because I wanted to serve my country and set my sights on becoming a federal prosecutor. 

That didn’t happen. I was recruited to work for a federal intelligence agency, but by the time my security clearance went through, I had graduated from law school and met my now-husband. It was going to be difficult spending three-quarters of my career overseas. 

So, I did development work at the law school in Newark, which was another pivotal moment because I was working for the dean, John Farmer, a national security expert. He was senior counsel for the 9/11 Commission and a great mentor. He provided an opportunity to get back to my core area of interest, which is intelligence and national security issues.

RM: Elie, you graduated with a bachelor of arts in political science?  

EH: Yes. My story is similar to Ava’s, only one generation removed. My father’s parents were Polish Holocaust survivors who met as displaced persons afterward and arrived in the United States in 1949. They settled in New Jersey, had my dad in 1950, and my grandfather died in 1960. My dad was raised by a single mom who had just survived the Holocaust and didn’t speak the language well and had little formal education.

Rutgers was the lifeline my family needed. My dad [Murray Honig RC’71, CLAW’75] and my uncle [Gordon Honig RC’74] went here. I was born while my father was attending Rutgers Law School in Camden, and was only a few months old at the time of his graduation. I guess that was my first official Rutgers event.

I went to Rutgers, as did my two younger brothers [Peter Honig RC’00 and Ben Honig RC’04], and it’s where my professional interest was sparked. I attribute a lot of it to professor Milton Heumann, who taught my criminal justice and poli-sci courses and became my prelaw adviser. I was also sparked by working for the Middlesex County Public Defender’s Office as a sophomore. I’d watch trials, go into jails, interview clients, and go out with investigators. I said, “Wow, this is what I want to do.” 

Ava and I feel deeply connected to Rutgers because we grew up here. It became a launching pad for our professional careers. To have a chance to return and work with the next generation, to get them ready for careers in criminal justice and intel and national security, is incredibly rewarding.