By: Anna Schneider-Mayerson Date: 8/21/2006 Page: 12
The New York Observer
Andrew Peterson heard that British authorities had thwarted a massive
terrorist plot when he turned on The Today Show in his Fort Greene
apartment Thursday morning. A recent graduate of the New York University Law
School, where, as a research assistant at the Center on Law and Security, he
analyzed topics such as terrorism trials and N.S.A. wiretapping, he was well
versed on the range of the issues raised by this announcement.
After all, it’s exactly this new world disorder that set Mr. Peterson, 27, on
the path to law school, and now beyond. He hopes to pursue a career in the
government focusing on national-security concerns.
“It’s not just a day like today,” he said, speaking on the afternoon that the
news broke, about the threat of terrorism that has shaped his career
ambitions. “It’s the fact that days like today tend to happen on a regular
Like more and more law students these days, Mr. Peterson’s post-graduation
plans center on the specter of terrorist attacks and the opportunities created
by the post-9/11 security-heightened climate. During law school, which he
began two years after the planes tore into the Twin Towers, he interned at the
Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern
District of New York and the domestic-security section of the criminal
division of the Department of Justice. On Monday, he started his clerkship
with Kenneth Karas, a United States District Judge for the Southern District
of New York, who for years was a leading terrorism prosecutor.
Mr. Peterson is part of a burgeoning group of lawyers interested in
national-security-related issues. For lawyers troubled by the dimensions of
this looming threat—be it to the nation’s security or its support for human
rights—this is a time like no other. Since the attacks of 9/11 and President
Bush’s declaration of a war on terror brought newfound attention to the
category of law practice surrounding these issues, it’s become one of the most
glamorous and sought-after fields, filled with new opportunities for lawyers.
More and more, the path begins in law school, where until the late 1970’s
classes on national-security law were virtually nonexistent, according to Duke
University law professor Scott Silliman, who heads the university’s Center on
Law, Ethics and National Security. Now, he said, the classes are always full.
That could be for many reasons. Over the past three years, two of the most
important Supreme Court decisions have been related to national-security
issues. In Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the
administration, ruling that Guantánamo detainees had a right to challenge
their detentions in federal court; then, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the
Supreme Court ruled that the special military commissions used to try
Guantánamo detainees are illegal.
Lawyers have staked out influential positions in the administration’s policy
debates. Those in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department
articulated legal defenses for the use of torture in interrogating alleged
terrorists, under the theories of broad executive power in wartime.
Moreover, the issues raised by questions of what the country can to do to
protect its citizens from attack touch on many different legal fields—which
helps explain why it has captured the interest of so many lawyers. The role of
international law, separation of powers, federal courts, civil rights and
civil liberties, freedom of information—all of these come into play.
Not to mention that the field brings students into contact with the stories
they read about in the news everyday.
“Very few lawyers are going to go off to Iraq, but this is one way to get
involved in these important national issues,” said Noah Feldman, an N.Y.U. law
professor who taught the popular law and security colloquium last year.
Mr. Feldman said that the interest in these issues doesn’t divide along party
lines. “Some people are motivated on these issues because they’re worried
about civil liberties; other people are motivated by fear of getting blown
Those perturbed by the potential encroachments on civil rights tend to want to
work at the kinds of organizations, like the ACLU or the Center for
Constitutional Rights, that have taken the lead on civil-rights issues
throughout the ages.
“In the post-9/11 burst-of-patriotism phase, people become more interested in
serving the government and serving their country. Now it’s become a little
more complicated in terms of the war in Iraq and the wider war on terrorism.
Now we have students who are interested in the government, and we have a
number of students interested in checking the government,” said Alexa
Shabecoff, the assistant dean for public service at Harvard Law School.
So what exactly does it mean to be a national-security lawyer? There still
isn’t necessarily a career path.
Said Mr. Peterson: “You’re not going to come out of law school and [have]
someone … pay you to be a lawyer on terror.”
Prior to 9/11, most of the legal heavy lifting on terrorism was the province
of prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New
York. They handled the prosecutions for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade
Center; the now-familiar Bojinka plot to blow up United States–bound airliners
over the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea; the attacks on two U.S.
Embassies in East Africa, which led to an indictment of Osama bin Laden; and
the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
Lawyers from their offices also worked on the cases against conspirators in
the so-called millennium plot to bomb LAX; the case against John Walker Lindh,
the American who fought with the Taliban; and Zacarias Moussaoui.
But after the President declared the World Trade Center attacks “acts of war,”
the locus of activity shifted from New York to Washington, D.C. The military
approach superseded the criminal-justice approach.
“After 9/11, there’s a paradigm shift in the way that the problem is
approached,” said Andrew McCarthy, a counterterrorism expert who prosecuted
Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric now serving a life sentence for
plotting to blow up New York City landmarks. “From 1993 to 9/11 … the
criminal-justice system was the main point of the spear.”
He added that “if you’re going to run a war, it’s got to be run down in
“After 9/11, there was a shift of the mission of the Justice Department to
engage in disruption” rather than solely prosecution, said David Kelley, who
led the team that prosecuted Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the World
Trade Center bombing.
For some, this spring’s Zacarias Moussaoui trial was a watershed moment for
the prosecution of terror suspects. His trial highlighted the value of
prevention rather than traditional prosecution.
“The value of putting Moussaoui in jail for life is so insignificant compared
to the value of having caught him” ahead of time, said one former Southern
“With criminal law, it’s often a function of who you catch committing a
crime,” said Paul Butler, another former Southern District prosecutor. “It’s
not necessarily in the country’s national-security interest to wait until the
plane hits, or the bomb.”
The limits of the criminal-justice system have sent some looking for outlets
beyond the prosecutor’s office. In some cases, that has led lawyers into
The NYPD’s counterterrorism division has been hiring lawyers with Ivy League
law-school degrees to serve as “civilian analysts.” In that position, their
assignments range from analyzing the regional context of terrorists groups, to
researching all of the uses for ammonium nitrate, to figuring out the way that
“organizations of concern” recruit on the Internet.
“Typically, the New York City police officer is someone with a high-school
education and 60 credits of college, and usually a little more
action-oriented—not particularly bookish,” said Deputy Commissioner of Public
Information Paul Browne. These new recruits are the exception, he said.
He added: “I wasn’t personally surprised. A lot of these people who deal in
theory like the idea of sitting across the room from the detectives who are
actually going to go out in the field and possibly make an arrest or launch an
Said one lawyer who works in national security: “I think there’s more of a
sense of this being front-line work. It’s not an after-the-fact approach to
The lawyer added: “In many lawyers, even in many prosecutors who are in the
game, there lurks a little bit of a sense that their analytical minds put them
at the margins … who think, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if lawyers could become
essential to national security?’”
In part because the perspectives on the national-security question are so
diverse, there is no set career path. But for many elite law-school graduates
heading into the national-security field—much like their peers in the more
traditional fields—the first step is a judicial clerkship.
Lindsay Rodman, 25, founded Harvard Law School’s National Security and the Law
Society last year. She’s applying to clerk with judges in the hot pockets of
federal security issues in D.C. and the Eastern District of Virginia, which
because of its location near the Pentagon hears many cases that end with “v.
This summer, Ms. Rodman is splitting her time between two law firms in the
capital: Arnold & Porter’s national-security litigation and policy unit, and
Kaye Scholer, which has a national-security transactional-practice group.
“There’s really no national-security practice in New York City,” she said of
her hometown. She expects to move to D.C. after graduation. “My dad’s really
crushed. He’s like, ‘There’s port security.’ I’m like, ‘No, Dad, c’mon.’”
Many of the large Washington law firms have such practice groups. After
serving as the deputy assistant secretary of defense and then special
assistant to Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Butler joined the national-security
practice of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. The work is part consulting,
part government relations, and part law practice for companies that do
business with the government in the new national-security atmosphere.
It goes without saying that D.C. is the place to be for lawyers interested in
“National-security work is the hot government work right now,” said Karen
Greenberg, the executive director of N.Y.U.’s Center on Law and Security.
One D.C. lawyer turned national-security wonk likened the migration to the one
in the civil-rights era, when well-meaning lawyers flocked to the Department
of Justice to work under Robert F. Kennedy.
In this case, though, the opportunities to practice law related to national
security are spread out though several different agencies.
Lawyers have swarmed to jobs at the Department of Justice, the Office of the
Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and the
Treasury Department, which oversees issues related to terrorist financing.
All, of course, in D.C.
“What’s the right way for the country to handle this?” asked Mr. Butler, only
a bit rhetorically. “Through the traditional criminal-justice system? Or
military courts and commissions? Or is there some kind of twilight? Lawyers
are gravitating to this to find out if there is a third way that allows us to
protect people’s rights, but also to protect the country against an incredibly
serious and often imminent national-security threat.”