David Ryan can’t get too specific about his work at the U.S. Department of Justice. And that’s probably a good thing, because as an attorney in the National Security Division’s Office of Intelligence at the DOJ, Ryan works in the world of foreign intelligence gathering to keep America and its allies safe. 

It’s a career he has been building up to ever since he served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps a decade ago. “I found that work important and interesting,” says Ryan, who was deployed to Afghanistan and was later stationed at a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.

During his time in the military, Ryan roomed with a judge advocate general who became one of his closest friends. The friend was a prosecutor who tried crimes that occurred on base or were committed by service members. Ryan, who had not previously considered going into law, found himself drawn to the legal system as another important tool in the pursuit of justice. “I didn’t have any lawyers in my family growing up, but this friend inspired me to go to law school,” he says.

As a student at Harvard Law, Ryan wasn’t always sure he would continue in the intelligence field. He took care to gain experience in a range of practice areas — he was a student attorney with the school’s Prison Legal Assistance Project, for example, and interned at the DOJ on the Appellate Staff of the Civil Division. Through the Semester in Washington program, he worked for a U.S. District Court judge.

But he says he kept coming back — at first inadvertently — to national security. As a second-year student, Ryan applied for an internship in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, hoping to work on either white-collar or violent crime prosecutions, but was placed in the national security unit because of his background.

“It’s important to me to be able to work on something that really matters, so … you feel like you have made a difference in some way.”

“It actually ended up being a great thing, even though I didn’t initially want to work in that area,” he says, adding that he had the chance to assist prosecutors working on sensitive matters, including one related to the Boston Marathon bombers.

After law school and a judicial clerkship, Ryan began practicing with a private litigation firm, where he gained valuable experience, but also began itching to return to national security work. 

Today, Ryan is at the Office of Intelligence, which plays an important role overseeing the collection and use of foreign intelligence. “The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gives important and powerful legal tools to the intelligence community that they use to help protect the country,” he says. “But unlike in a lot of other countries, there is independent oversight of this process, and it is bound by the rule of law. It’s really a blessing that we have these checks and balances.”

Ryan says his job is to help facilitate the processes triggered when the government wants to use intelligence it has gathered in criminal proceedings. “Because of the enhanced civil liberties and privacy interests that are implicated in that scenario,” he says, “the executive branch has developed policies and procedures that allow for that to happen, but also allow for it to be regulated and to be supervised and consistent with the rule of law.” 

The work can be very rewarding, Ryan says. He often works with FBI attorneys and special agents, who sometimes need guidance navigating the complex procedures they must follow to ensure that the information they collect in their investigations can be used in court. The hardest part? Having to keep secrets from his friends and family, given the nature of national security work. “When you work in a classified setting, it can complicate some things in your personal life,” he says.

Though he needs to stay quiet about many parts of his job, Ryan is proud of the work he does. “I wanted to be in a field where I could serve my country, where I could work on important national security issues,” he says. “It’s important to me to be able to work on something that really matters, so that once you’re finished with it, you feel like you have made a difference in some way.”

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