In his old New Jersey neighborhood, Travis Berent (’12) can point out the street that bears the name of New York firefighter Alan Feinberg, a neighbor who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Berent was a young boy on the day of the terrorist attacks and like many who were helpless to fight, protect or even understand the destruction, he was soon drawn to public service.
That early ambition has taken him all the way to The White House, where he now serves on the National Security Council as director for Cyber Incident Response.
“I knew from an early age I was going to be involved in national security work. I was a volunteer emergency medical technician and in the Police Explorers program. Embry-Riddle offered the Global Security and Intelligence Studies (GSIS) degree and when I visited with my dad, the campus was awesome, and the weather was great.”
He admits he was not an academic overachiever. “I had too many fun friends who became pilots. I was also on the rugby team, which was more social than competitive.”
An internship with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service introduced Berent to the challenges of mail fraud, especially the compromise of business emails. He also interned with the New Jersey State Police in the surveillance division of their special investigation section. He enjoyed the field experience. Serving search warrants, setting up cameras undercover as a not entirely convincing “telecom employee” and working art fraud cases solidified his career goals.
After graduation, he spent a year as an analyst for JP Morgan Chase & Co. but grew tired of making money for other people. The finance world was not moving him closer to his dream job.
Shout Out to Groupon
His golden ticket to the Federal Bureau of Investigation was a Groupon.
“I got a Teaching English for a Foreign Language certificate on Groupon. I had to make myself competitive, and I didn’t have the grades for a top grad school at the time. I needed experience in an adversarial country, so I looked for a legitimate reason to live in China.”
His year absorbing Chinese culture and politics helped him land an interview with the FBI – and “a very exhaustive polygraph.” His willingness to break his lease and jump on a plane immediately made an impression.
He spent the first six years after his training in the FBI New York Field Office, often working alongside the New York Police Department, one of the largest and most resourceful law enforcement agencies in the world. He also earned a master’s degree in international relations from Harvard University.
You might expect that Berent is a hobbyist-hacker who lived and breathed computers, but he says his real skills are more interpersonal than technical. He ranks his computer sophistication at blue belt level, not black belt.
“I’m not a computer scientist. However, when you’re dealing with people, whether they are interagency partners, liaisons from industry or informants, you have to be able to talk the talk if you want to walk the walk. Relationships with people are paramount. That’s where I’ve vectored my bandwidth.”
A rotation at FBI headquarters was his first foray in the Bureau’s cyber division.
Develop a Strong PowerPoint Game
He developed a skill that propelled his career: Briefing.
“Put me in a room with a PowerPoint and I’ll make an impact. Briefings got me noticed by NSC folks on the policy side, and they advocated for me.”
He remembers his intelligence writing class at Embry-Riddle and still strives for the ABCs in his briefings: accuracy, brevity and clarity. He still reads the “Eagle Eye” newsletter produced by GSIS students. Confidence also helps.
“I used to get nervous, but an old intel guy reminded me, you are telling people information that they don’t know. They want to hear from you. So you have to empty your gas tank and make sure you get everything out.”
He became the director’s daily briefer on cybercrime, which led to an interview with senior White House national security officials.
Today, as a National Security Council director, he is a cyber-diplomat who works across agencies to develop and implement policy and build consensus on how to address threats, ranging from ransomware attacks on businesses to exploitation of the vulnerabilities of infrastructure. His role is apolitical but advances the priorities of the administration.
He describes his job as an effort to “get to ground truth and then coordinate a response that includes remediation, bringing systems back online and establishing accountability.”
“When we talk about securing our critical infrastructure, we are talking about the 16 sectors defined by Presidential Policy Directive 21.”
Covered cyber incident and ransomware payment reporting will eventually be required under the Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act of 2022, signed into law in March of last year. More comprehensive data on these attacks should help “move the needle on mitigation,” according to Berent.
A Little Computer Hygiene Goes a Long Way
Berent points out that while cyberattacks in the movies and on TV involve sophisticated tactics, techniques and procedures, the real threat is more likely to be human error or negligence when it comes to basic precautions.
“A lot of cyber criminals are kids who go after low-hanging fruit. Even for large enterprises, simple defenses such as embracing multifactor authentication or patching your systems and having your antivirus up to date puts you in a much safer position.”
Under a new executive order, software companies who want to be vendors to the United States Government must advance their zero trust architecture and have more “baked in” security features, which he hopes will raise software design standards overall.
Berent loves national security work and would be happy to see more Eagles, including veterans, rise through the ranks. The FBI is a great launch pad for security professionals.
“The first three to five years, you will focus on becoming a good investigator or analyst, and then you can start leveraging your toolkit with an eye on the assignment you want.”
He shares advice for those who would like to be in a position to give their proud family a personal White House tour, as he did recently when he showed his wife, parents and sister the Oval Office.
Unlimited Opportunities Ahead
“Get your degree but understand you are not defined by your major or GPA,” he advises to those seeking jobs in cybersecurity law enforcement. “Stay fit. Don’t do hard drugs or anything that will make a polygraph exam a problem. Get involved in policy at your home agency and become an effective communicator, which gets you into the room with decision-makers.”
He assures Embry-Riddle students they have a friend in the business and encourages them to reach out to him via LinkedIn.
“Friends I made at Embry-Riddle are friends for life. Many of them are colleagues working in the intelligence community. We kept our heads down. We had patience and resilience. Keep your eye on what you want, and you will get there. There’s a lot of billets, a lot of jobs. There’s a giant apparatus with 18 agencies in the intelligence community. There are many federal law enforcement agencies.”
Where might Berent fit into that apparatus in the future?
He says he may feel the itch to get back to fieldwork but his purpose will remain constant. “I think in 10 years I will still want to be working to protect the American people, uphold the Constitution and impose consequences on our adversaries.”