The Trailblazers

Maria Langan-Riekhof (MA ’95)

In the early 1990s, when Maria Langan-Riekhof was deep into her coursework at what was then DU’s Graduate School of International Studies, she and a handful of classmates wanted to delve more deeply into the intersection of human rights and security.

Today, that territory is integral to her day-to-day duties as director of the Strategic Futures Group at the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC), which reports to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). But 30 years ago, Langan-Riekhof says, “to talk about human rights as core to national security was less common.” 

At DU, Langan-Riekhof found ways to help bring them together. She and five of her fellow students approached David Goldfischer, then a relatively new DU professor, about creating opportunities to further explore potential connections between seemingly disparate topics. Intrigued, he offered them the chance to help develop a small seminar for themselves. The group agreed and then identified readings, organized class discussions and set paper topics. 

“When students saw interesting connections but didn’t have a course for it, the school gave us the latitude and support to pursue our interests,” Langan-Riekhof recalls, noting that the course allowed them to weave together everything from international relations theory and international economics to human rights and development. 

Langan-Riekhof considers these experiences important to shaping the focus and direction of her 31-year career spread across the CIA and the office of the DNI. Some of her jobs included chief of the CIA’s Red Cell, which she calls “the [agency’s] global contrarian unit” and where she learned to challenge assumptions and assessments and widen her analytic aperture to more global issues. She also founded and directed the CIA’s Strategic Insight Department and served as a research director focused on the Middle East. Her work has covered social, economic and political dynamics across the globe, moving from more tactical coverage of emerging crises to broader, strategic assessments of worldwide trends. Other highlights: a stint editing the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), which provides up-to-the-minute intelligence analysis, and a sabbatical as a federal fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she worked with many renowned foreign affairs specialists.

All of that was excellent preparation for her current job as one of 16 senior officers at the NIC, long considered the Intelligence Community’s strategic think tank. Among its many roles, the NIC provides authoritative assessments on critical national security issues—often in the form of National Intelligence Estimates. 

One of Langan-Riekhof’s primary responsibilities is leading the research and development of the NIC’s quadrennial Global Trends Report, an assessment of the key trends and uncertainties likely to shape the strategic environment for the U.S. over the next two decades. This forecast offers policymakers an analytic foundation for developing national security strategy. The report incorporates data and projections on demographics, economics, the environment and technology, and then provides an array of potential scenarios looking out 20 years. It’s a fully unclassified document, which Langan-Riekhof says is rare for the Intelligence Community. (It can be accessed at 

“To construct global trends, we rely on a broad range of sources for ideas and information as we look for those big muscle movements, those trends that are shaping the long-term future. It’s important to talk to a lot of people to get diverse perspectives. Everyone from academics at a range of institutions—including the University of Denver—to communities all over the world: student groups in Asia, religious leaders, technologists, innovators and business leaders. We want to hear a wide range of voices,” she says. (From DU, the report draws on the work of several faculty members, as well as researchers at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and its Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures.)

Her “day job,” as Langan-Riekhof calls it, immerses her in a complex mix of transnational issues: climate change, migration, geopolitics, corruption, global health, governance, the erosion of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism. For the past year, she’s also been the national intelligence officer for gender, a position requested by the Biden administration. She provides analytic support to the Gender Policy Council, a White House effort to advance gender equity and equality in domestic and foreign policy development and implementation. 

At one time, that would have sounded like an unlikely topic for an intelligence professional. But, as her years at DU taught her, human rights and national security are closely linked. “Today, no one is going to blink at that,” she says. “Issues of identity—everything from gender identity to LGBTQI+ identities—are part of the conversation when we talk about international and national security. In a lot of ways, I think GSIS, now Korbel, was really ahead of its time on those issues.”

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