In 2006, David Pressman, then working with the United Nations, smuggled George Clooney, Clooney’s father Nick, and a cameraman into the devastated Darfur region to film a documentary about the ongoing genocide.
As the group clambered off the plane in the Sudan, a teenage gunman stuck a rifle in Clooney’s face as he attempted to film the scene. According to the star, Pressman casually strolled up to the boy, calmed him down, swatted away the gun, and moved on as if nothing had happened.
“David is brave in the real sense of the word,” George Clooney said. “He’s found himself in some of the most volatile places at the most volatile times.”
That kind of sang-froid will serve Pressman well in his new job as the nation’s first-ever director for war crimes atrocities and civilian protection, a national security position created by President Barack Obama. Pressman, a 32-year-old civil-rights attorney and former Clooney adviser, will be coordinating and supporting the U.S. government’s efforts to respond to and prevent mass atrocities around the globe, from Darfur to the Congo, Rwanda, Burma, and Zimbabwe.
In the new job, Pressman plans to do “some important plumbing and wiring” to create a structure within government to fight war crimes, working alongside the Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, and the intelligence community.
"Genocide doesn’t just happen,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s an organized supply chain of hatred, weapons, and of leadership. We need to be able to interrupt that supply chain. Too often these issues rise to the level of the president when all the tools in the toolbox are gone, and you only have the choice to send in the Marines or stand by and do nothing.”
Pressman identifies government-controlled “hate radio” as the tool that fostered the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in which nearly 1 million people were killed. In the Congo, he says, minerals have always been at the crux of the lengthy, bloody conflict, in which both government and militia forces perpetuate a mass rape epidemic that has left 500,000 women and girls violently raped.
“Often we can convince ourselves that these problems are so historic and so complex that there's nothing we can do about it,” he said. “But in fact, unless we wait until it's too late, there is something that we the U.S. and the international community can do."
The idea for the new anti-genocide position came out of the Bipartisan Genocide Prevention Task Force, headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, which concluded in late 2008 that preventing genocide is an “achievable goal” and central to the interests of the United States.
Pressman comes to the job with an unusual résumé, combining political experience, on-the-ground work in conflict zones, and celebrity philanthropy. After a stint in the Clinton White House and a clerkship for the Supreme Court of Rwanda, he worked as special assistant to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in Sudan for the United Nations, and most recently served as chief of staff and counselor to the deputy secretary of Homeland Security.
Though he has worked closely with celebrities like Clooney, Pressman is a wonk with little patience for Hollywood theatrics. “I've always had a certain degree of skepticism about celebrity engagement in these kind of issues,” he admitted, “but it was very clear that George brought a degree of very, very serious knowledge and concern and was willing to do it. Dafur wasn't always as well known as it is now.”
Since their 2006 trip, Pressman and Clooney have circumnavigated the globe to raise awareness and press for peace in Darfur and other hot spots. They also established a nonprofit, Not On Our Watch, alongside Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Don Cheadle, which is now focused on torture and political oppression in Burma and the public health and economic crisis in Zimbabwe.
Despite all the publicity they generated and the millions they raised, Pressman now seems to downplay his own role within Not On Our Watch, comparing the slick group to the high-school volunteers who organized Dollars for Darfur. “It wasn’t that different,” he maintained. “These kids could raise a couple of dollars here and there and then George Clooney could speak and the entire world would hear what he had to say. So it was a really powerful and useful tool. I’m a lot less interesting than the president’s creation of this job,” he added.
In the Congo, Pressman’s aim is to galvanize international governments into working together to deal with the root cause of the conflict—the exploitation of minerals. (Congolese “blood diamonds” are coveted by jewelry manufacturers, while tin, tungsten, and tantalum from the country’s mines are used in electronic devices such as cellphones.)
“You look at any indications of mass violence and then you engage bilaterally and multilaterally to prevent them from flourishing into mass civilian atrocities,” he said.
Pressman’s former boss, Madeleine Albright, believes he has landed in the right job. “David has been a dedicated leader in dealing with the issues of war crimes and atrocities for a long time,” she said. “He is now in the ideal place to be able to make a difference. I am delighted to see such a talented young person, with such determination, continuously working on these unresolved tragedies.”
Pressman grew up in California the son of two attorneys with a firm belief in equal rights. He credits his Jewish heritage for his activism and moral outrage. “It’s almost schizophrenic, at once you're uttering this mantra of ‘never again’ and you're looking around and you're seeing it happening again and again and again. The point is to be less responsive and more proactive.”
It is George Clooney, however, who offers the most interesting take on his buddy’s new endeavor.
"David is brave in the real sense of the word. He is a tireless defender of civil rights and fights injustice all around the world,” Clooney said. “He's found himself in some of the most volatile places at the most volatile times, Darfur, the Congo, and now Washington, D.C. Very brave indeed".
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.