In his first television ad Pat Ryan took aim at guns. The 30-second spot juxtaposes images of U.S troops in combat, scenes from school shootings and an unnerving sequence of schoolchildren strapping on combat helmets and pulling flak jackets from lockers. Intercut is Ryan cradling an M4 carbine-the same type of weapon he carried as an Army intelligence officer during two tours in Iraq — with professional poise.
“If our schoolchildren are going up against this,” Ryan intones holding up the rifle “They deserve the same kind of protection we give our soldiers. Or, we could just get rid of assault rifles. What makes more sense to you?”
The message and its presentation encapsulate a theme the 36-year-old Army captain turned security tech entrepreneur is driving home as he tries to set himself apart from six fellow Democrats seeking the party’s nomination and a chance to take on incumbent Republican John Faso in New York’s 19th congressional district in November. His profile as a U.S. Military Academy graduate, combat veteran and Kingston native with deep roots in his hometown, he said, was the right mix to present progressive ideas, like single-payer healthcare and an assault weapons ban, to a largely rural district split near-evenly between Republicans, Democrats and non-party-enrolled voters.
“In my experience knocking on those doors, you’ve got three or four seconds to get somebody to listen,” said Ryan. “When I talk about my roots and talk about my service, that door opens a little wider. Then we can have those conversations.”
The realities of war
Ryan is a fourth-generation Kingstonian who said he was drawn to public service by his mother, a schoolteacher and his grandfather John Porsch a Navy veteran who survived a ship sinking under him in WWII and went on to serve 20 years on the Kingston Common Council. At age 17 he was nominated by former congressman the late Maurice Hinchey to attend the U.S. Military Academy. Ryan graduated in 2004, at the height of the Iraq war. He would go on to serve two tours there as an intelligence officer for a battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment. His experience in the military — working with a diverse group of officers and enlisted men representing every geographic and social spectrum — gave him a broader understanding of his fellow Americans while his time in Iraq exposed him to the realities of war.
“I saw firsthand how ugly and terrible war is how nearly impossible it is to impose your will on another country,” said Ryan. “It really shaped my views on foreign policy.”
After leaving the Army, Ryan earned a master’s degree in security studies from Georgetown University and married his wife, Rebecca. The couple later moved to her hometown of New York City where Ryan leveraged his work in military intelligence to start a company in the booming field of data and security software development. Ryan said his interest in the field was inspired by an incident in Iraq when five soldiers from his unit were killed in an IED blast. Better intelligence analysis tools, Ryan said, would have flagged the road as a danger zone and possibly saved their lives.
Data security issues
But if Ryan’s career choice was inspired by a desire to protect American troops in the field, it also exposed him to the double-edged potential of data mining. In 2010 while working for the technology firm Berico — his first job after the Army — Ryan was involved in the development of a sales pitch to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a program to monitor, disrupt and discredit labor and activist groups. The program was dropped before it could ever be implemented after hackers leaked news of the plan. Ryan said that, as a mid-level executive he “raised the red flag early and often” about the ethical ramifications of a plan. Ryan said he is proud of his and the company’s decision to back out of proposal once those ramifications became clear.
“If I could go back and change anything about that situation I would have been even more vocal, even earlier about this plan even at that conceptual stage,” said Ryan.
But the Berico affair, and Ryan’s subsequent involvement in the development of intelligence software used by law enforcement have led opponents to brand him an agent of the surveillance state. But Ryan said his experience in private sector intelligence has given him the kind of deep knowledge on data security issues that will allow him to effectively advocate for privacy laws and rein in potential abuse of the technology.
“I know better than anyone in this race, and frankly better than most people in this country how this stuff works,” said Ryan. “And if there’s anything we need right now its people in Washington who can actually understand this stuff to make the rules and set the guardrails.”