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Life is all about priorities, protection and being present.
On this week’s episode of Women of Washington, host Gigi Schumm welcomed Assiya Ashraf-Miller, deputy assistant secretary within the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS). Ashraf-Miller served many years overseas and her team is responsible for the oversight of U.S. law enforcement and security policies for over 250 U.S. diplomatic posts, and direction of resources and programs at all 275 U.S. diplomatic posts with a budget of over $2 billion.
Ashraf-Miller said her team — the law enforcement and security arm — also trains diplomatic security personnel and U.S. government personnel serving overseas, conducts complex criminal investigations, and protects the U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and foreign dignitaries visiting the United States.
“We are very innovative in terms of physical and technical security. We are also very forward-looking as an organization,” she said. “We have a cybersecurity element where we’re all looking at our sate and non-state actors who are a threat to our networks and the State Department and how to mitigate those threats.”
Her work also includes sometimes partnering with the Defense Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Peace Corps and other agencies with posts overseas. Ashraf-Miller and her team are committed to guiding DS special agents overseas, called regional security officers, to ensure their success to facilitate U.S. foreign policy objectives safely and securely.
“Every country is unique, every country has unique issues. There’s nuance, there’s context culturally, politically and economically, so [a] regional security officer wants to make sure that every person in that US diplomatic post is prepared and aware to perform and be effective, be safe and secure,” she said. “The regional security officer is really the key to making sure that we as a country can successfully further and enable our U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives around the world.”
When stationed overseas, the security officers are also responsible for not only training their team but also to serve as a liaison to the host country and its law enforcement at the posts. Ashraf-Miller previously served as a regional security officer (RSO) in several posts including Kabul, Afghanistan; Kuwait City, Kuwait; and Damascus, Syria.
She returned to the U.S. only eight months ago from her position in Kabul, an experience she hopes never to forget. Despite being in a war zone, she said it helps her in her current position to make sure the government is supporting other regional security officers around the globe and giving them the resources that they need.
“I want to make sure that our RSOs feel like they’re not by themselves out there and that I have their back,” she said.
Ashraf-Miller joined DS in 1999, and said the agency has come a long way since. From taking trips to the most dangerous parts of the world — war zones, terrorist attack sights and more — to making sure facilities and people are better protected, she said the agency has found a way to ensure the diplomatic reward is worth the risk. If not, they have to tell the leadership it’s not worth it.
“I can tell you, in my experience, that the vast majority of U.S. ambassadors and the rest of the State Department appreciate that and they understand it. [But] those occasions when we say ‘pause, this might be a little too risky’ to our personnel is pretty rare,” she said. I can tell you that we are doing things around the world, going into places that are quite dangerous, but we’re doing it in a way that makes sense. Nothing’s ever guaranteed 100%, but we are very deliberate in our planning.”
Planning is key in many areas, even from a young age. How did Ashraf-Miller decide to join the State Department’s security arm?
Originally from Alexandria, Virginia, she described herself as a precocious, yet rebellious child and not one to conform. But she knew early that she would either work in government or join the U.S. military.
“I felt public service was very important,” she said. “As a child of immigrants, my parents instilled in me how grateful we should be in being in this country. Both my parents immigrated here and even though they came from well-off families … they still had to start from scratch coming to a new country.”
She said her drive and strong will came from the other women in her life who were industrious and supportive of one another. The men in her life too gave her the space she needed to figure things out for herself.
Ashraf-Miller said her dad gave her confidence through one piece of advice that she’s kept with her.
“He always told me ‘you know what Assiya? I know whatever you do, you have a strong head, strong mind and you’re not going to do something that will get you in trouble.”
She also served as a platoon leader and battalion commander in the Reserve Officer Training Corps during high school.
She studied at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she met her husband of 25 years. During a Washington Semester Program through USC, she also started her journey to working with the government. Her internship placement through the program was with the DS.
“I don’t believe in destiny … but that is what caught my attention. It really was perfect, because I always loved to travel. I love exploring. I love trying new things, new cuisines, meeting new people, different cultures …,” she said. “I was also interested in law and justice because my plan originally was to go to law school. So this was a perfect fit in the best of both worlds.”
The rest was history, she said.
Work-life balance, advice
Work-life balance is a misnomer. Ashraf-Miller said work-life quality or work-life flexibility are better terms, because they don’t imply that there’s an equilibrium between work and personal life. This isn’t usually the case in diplomatic security, or any 24/7 global organization.
Finding a type of balance often comes from going out of your comfort zone. She said sometimes you just have to throw your hat in the ring and see what happens.
She said she would give her younger self and others two pieces of advice.
“One is to stop and smell the roses, because you see my career [is very] driven, just taking on greater responsibilities and challenges, but I think sometimes it’s okay to slow down and just enjoy the experience and be present,” she said. “The other thing is to trust your instincts. You know something on the surface may seem right or seem correct, but if your gut is telling you that not so much, I would say follow your intuition.”
Ashraf-Miller said her intuition has yet to let her down.
Gigi Schumm welcomes Washington's most ambitious and influential female executives to share their secrets to success. Contact Gigi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to Women of Washington’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.