Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar spent much of his childhood in the Texas Rio Grande Valley and then in California’s Imperial Valley on the U.S.-Mexico border. It was during this time, he says, that he first observed the power of law and the importance of public policy.
“The government had the power to establish legal rules about matters such as immigration and public safety, but the border was porous, making it difficult to reconcile theory and practice,” says Cuéllar (MA ’96, PhD ’00). “I learned the world is complicated and messy, and people’s lives are affected not only by how law is written but how it’s enforced.”
Those early observations deeply influenced Cuéllar and led him to a career that brings together law and policy, academic research and government service. It also led to publication earlier this year of his first book, Governing Security: The Hidden Origins of American Security Agencies, an account of developments affecting the architecture of U.S. government and its approach to security.
And, topping off a year of accomplishments, Cuéllar was recently appointed to lead Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), the university’s policy think-tank for international issues and challenges. He will take up the position in July.
Cuéllar’s academic career and government service have been something of a dance, with dips to each in turn. He studied government and psychology at Harvard University but was inspired to become a lawyer after a college summer job working at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago and later spending a day at a federal district courthouse in Boston—soaking up the activity. “The law,” he discovered, “is awesome. You can use its concepts and ideas to change the world. It’s a set of values and ideals, but also a set of compromises.”
After several summer jobs in Washington, D.C., as well as a stint on President Bill Clinton’s second campaign, Cuéllar, who earned his JD in 1997 at Yale Law School, joined the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
“It brought everything I was interested in together: national security, criminal justice and regulation, international and domestic policy,” he says. “I was so interested in the structures of government, how some agencies were part of the Treasury Department and others the Department of Justice.” Advising the undersecretary for enforcement, Cuéllar got to work with “great legal thinkers” among the agency’s lawyers and policy experts, observing how they approached problems.
He later blended that practical experience with academic study when he joined the Stanford Law School faculty in 2001. He has since become a leading expert in administrative law, executive power, and how organizations implement regulatory, immigration, public safety, and international security priorities. His past projects have analyzed how multiple agencies share and implement legal authority. “The law is given meaning in routine decisions by people who lead public organizations,” he says. His research has also explored the “blurry division” between domestic and international realms in national security and how seemingly domestic domains—such as agriculture, taxation, and education—can profoundly affect intelligence and foreign affairs.
Cuéllar returned to the executive branch in 2008, when he co-chaired the Obama-Biden transition team’s immigration policy working group. He later served as a special assistant to the president, working on justice and regulatory policy, including public health and food safety, immigration, federal sentencing and law enforcement reform, civil rights, and regulatory transparency.
It was during his last stint in government that the idea for Governing Security: The Hidden Origins of American Security Agencies came together. A century ago, the federal government had more limited capacity and played a more limited role in areas such as national and economic security. Today, though, executive agencies are “expansive and powerful,” he says. “I wanted to understand how that change occurred.”
To do so, Cuéllar looked at the Roosevelt-era Federal Security Agency (FSA) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, created more recently under George W. Bush.
“I compare two very different presidents who served in very different times, but who shared an understanding of how important government agencies could be,” he says. “I think it’s telling that in both cases, there was a deep concern with rewiring the structure of government and reorganizing these agencies. In both cases they took up this fight and invested a lot of themselves and their administrations in creating massive government reorganizations.”
According to Cuéllar, Roosevelt engineered FSA into a new government agency capable of shaping the public’s perception of the concept of security by establishing a vast new organization that cut across domestic and international domains, including public health, weapons research, civil defense, education policy, and economic security. Bush, on the other hand, combined 22 federal departments and agencies into the Department of Homeland Security, more narrowly focusing the agency on external risks, particularly the threat of non-state actors. Both approaches had implications for executive branch organization and the separation of powers.
“Federal agencies play a big role in our lives,” he says. “But how exactly are those agencies designed and created and who sets priorities when it comes to how those agencies handle the most urgent security problems facing our country?” Governing Security explores how these two questions are connected, by investigating the hidden origins of two of the most powerful agencies in the federal government.
Cuéllar describes his research methods as “unabashedly and enthusiastically eclectic,” comprising not only doctrinal analysis and quantitative studies but also archival research and media accounts. Although the book is “primarily descriptive and interpretive,” Cuéllar did come to what he calls tentative policy recommendations. Most notably, he cautions that agency expansion not be rushed. Similarly, presidents must be “clear about the goals” of new agencies and wary of expansion without also providing accompanying resources. That advice stems largely from his examination of the Department of Homeland Security, which was ordered to prioritize terrorism yet simultaneously carry out other missions.
“The agency was left to flounder in its early days as a result,” he says. “It’s not surprising that the agency botched Hurricane Katrina recovery—considering a massive reorganization had just occurred and [the fact that] the agency received ambiguous messages and limited resources.”
In addition to teaching at the law school since returning to Stanford, Cuéllar has continued his involvement in policy in both government and on campus. He co-chaired the U.S. Department of Education’s congressionally chartered Equity and Excellence Commission, and he currently serves as co-director of FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), one of the 11 research centers and programs that he will oversee when he takes the helm at the institute.
While much of his time leading FSI will likely be taken up with administrative duties, Cuéllar is keen to continue teaching—and to make time for his scholarship. His next project explores the intersection between domestic and international forces, looking at the origins of the modern American administrative state by investigating how World War II affected U.S. administrative agencies and legal institutions. While reveling in the accomplishment of having published a book, he’s also looking forward to his next challenge.
“I am deeply honored to have been asked to lead FSI. The institute is in a unique position to help address some of our most pressing international challenges in areas such as governance and development, health, technology, and security,” Cuéllar says. “FSI’s culture embodies the best of Stanford—a commitment to rigorous research, training leaders, and engaging with the world.” SL