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 basis.”
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 up.”
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 Washington.”
“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 District prosecutor.
“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 intelligence work.
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 investigation.”
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 problem.”
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. Rumsfeld.”
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 government work.
“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.”