After September 11, 2001, Lisa Daftari assumed that her upcoming law school admissions test would be cancelled. But on October 11, she found herself emerging from a downtown subway near where the World Trade Center had stood to sit for the LSAT. “It was like a movie set,” she recalls. “It was so surreal. There were ashes on the ground–almost like snow. You could hear a pin drop in downtown Manhattan.”
A recent Rutgers University graduate (with a 4.0 average), Daftari had always intended to be a lawyer or a doctor like her father, an Iranian emigree. Staying in a hotel the night before the test, she found that she wasn’t thinking about law school. “My mother and I were the only civilians in the hotel,” she says. “There were firefighters in the lobby and policemen on horseback on the streets. All I could do was ask them as many questions as possible. What have you done? What have you seen? Looking back, it was like being embedded in a rescue team. I took the LSAT mechanically, but I backed away from the idea of going to law school.”
Daftari had pursued a triple major at Rutgers–Spanish literature, Middle Eastern studies, and vocal performance (she sings opera)– and, though she had always said she’d like to make a career based on international affairs with a focus on the Middle East, she didn’t resolve to actually do it until after September 11. Growing up in suburban New York, almost in sight of the Twin Towers, and having family roots in pre-revolutionary Iran, she knew she had an unusual vantage point and special insights to offer. She realized that something new was happening and that many Americans were unprepared to grasp this.
“I don’t think American reporters were ready wrap their minds around what was happening, and I wanted to fill that void. Luckily, I was able to get the support of my parents and to take wonderful law school acceptance letters and shred them,” says Daftari. Today, Daftari is an investigative reporter, familiar to many of us from her appearances on Fox News. She had just returned from interviewing fighters on the Syrian border, when we talked.
Has she ever been to Iran? She jokes that the government of Iran would probably be “more than happy to host me on a one way ticket.” Daftari’s father came to New York to study before the revolution that ousted the Shah and would have returned to Iran had not the revolution intervened. He met Lisa’s mother, an accountant and CFO of a boutique hotel, on a trip to Iran while still a student. Lisa is the second of four Daftari children. She speaks fluent English, Persian, Hebrew, and Spanish. Daftari launched “The Foreign Desk,” a site devoted to international affairs in 2015. Her title is editor-in-chief.
After passing up law school, Lisa was accepted at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where she won a Presidential Merit Scholarship. While at USC, she encountered Marze Por Gohar, an Iranian underground resistance movement. Marze Por Gohar led a short-lived uprising in 1999 and favors a secular Iran.Lisa met with a leader of the group who had been granted asylum and was living only a few blocks from her parents. “With my brother sitting a few tables away, I talked to him for four hours, and he agreed to let me delve into his archives,” she says. The project turned into a documentary film, “Marze Por Gohar: The Struggle to Bring Democracy to Iran,” which became Daftari’s master’s degree thesis. She has shown the film before Congress. Lisa followed this up with a Carnegie-Knight fellowship, which she used to do a research project entitled “A post-9/11 America.”
One of her early jobs after journalism school was working as a producer in the investigative unit for NBC in Los Angeles. Her contacts helped her break the story that Jamiyaat Ul-Islam Is-Saheed (JIS), a terrorist organization, was planning to blow up some Los Angeles targets, including several military bases, a number of synagogues and the Federal Building. She has provided on-air insights into the Middle East and North Africa on Fox News, CBS, NBC, PBS, and Voice of America. The Foreign Desk has snagged several big scoops: Lisa was the first to report that Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, had been flogged because of his opinions. Previously, she was the first to report that Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor from Idaho, had been arrested and was being held in Iran. (Abedini was one of the hostages released after the U.S. gave Iran $400 million in cold cash, widely considered a ransom.) Not to be overlooked, the glamorous, globe-trotting Daftari was named one of the Washington Times “30 Hottest Women in Politics” in 2013.
During the presidential campaign, Daftari was concerned that neither candidate had what she would consider a deep understanding of the Middle East or terrorism. “Based on the debates, I would hope both had more information than they were putting out to the American public,” she says. Daftari says that U.S. policy in the Middle East is incoherent: We say, on one hand, that we want to kick out Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and on the other hand want to work with Russia, which wants Assad, a Russian ally, to stay in power.
She said that Obama administration policy makers failed to grasp the crux of what is happening in Syria. She explained, “It’s a civil war between those who want Assad to stay and those who want him to go. If we were able to make ISIS magically vanish overnight tomorrow, we would still wake up with a Syrian crisis ongoing because we still haven’t resolved the question of Assad. The elephant in the room is our relationship with Russia. Are we with Russia, or are we against Russia? The bottom line is that the United States is not clear on what we want the outcome in Syria to be. What outcome would benefit the U.S.?”
She also worries that the U.S. response to terrorism is “reactive” rather than proactive. “The main goal for us is to understand how technologically savvy they have become,” she says. “We need to be one step ahead of them, but so far we are not and we have been losing the ideological battle. The U.S. and our Western allies have enough power to take out ISIS in Iraq overnight, but they have grown and spread everywhere because of their technological savvy. The quality of their platform is superior. The message has been sent by ISIS headquarters is that it is no longer necessary to travel to the caliphate. …They are telling people to stay where they are and launch local attacks. If you do that, you will still be a martyr, part of the caliphate. They have a dual pronged platform: the battle field and the information world.”
Much of what ISIS does, she adds, is on the “dark web,” which has hidden sites that dispense information.
Although the Obama administration is outgoing, its Iranian nuclear treaty remains of special interest to Daftari because of her background. “The Iranian Revolution shaped the lives of so many members of my family,” she says. She believes that the U.S. attitude towards the negotiations boded ill from the beginning.” When one side shows that absolutely nothing can deter them from getting a deal, then the other side keeps raising the stakes.”
She believes that Iran today would be different if the President had given early and unequivocal support to the Iranian Green Movement of 2009, an uprising against the mullahs and the largest scale protest in Iran since the Shah was toppled in 1978. Protesters shouted, “Obama are you with us?” President Obama restricted his support to a few banalities (such as saying, “The world is watching”) and worrying aloud about the violence in the streets. “He lost so much respect from the people of Iran and they paid such a heavy price for coming out into the streets–crackdowns, arrests, and executions. In the country that was truly due for a spring, we turned our backs on them. My theory was that President Obama wanted to work with the mullahs and wanted the mullahs to remain.”
Always willing to differ from the journalistic herd, Daftari has spoken out for Christians being persecuted in the Middle East and called Sharia, which she says is already being practiced in the U.S., the real “war on women.” Daftari ruffled feathers by writing that unbridled immigration from the Middle East and North Africa is “Europe’s time bomb.”
“I am the child of immigrants,” she says, feeling as though she is in a unique position to understand the delicate debate surrounding the refugee crisis. “I grew up with the understanding that you could fully assimilate and at the same time fully retain your roots–your food, your language, and your culture–and without compromising any of that become American and proud of being an American. It was always such a blessing to be cognizant that I was being raised in a country that allowed you to do so many things that I would not have been allowed to do in Iran. I didn’t grow up in an ex-pat community. I fully, fully embraced American culture. I think my siblings feel the same way. We grew up speaking many languages and embraced each one and were proud to identify as Americans.”
The incoming administration has much to grapple with as it decides how to approach the complex problems in the Middle East . Can we make a humble suggestion? Someone from the Trump Administration should grab Lisa between her jaunts to dangerous places, and pick her very well-furnished brain?