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National Security, Law Enforcement, and Terrorism

National Security, Law Enforcement, and Terrorism

Imagine that a bio terror weapon has been released in a major American city, and the city must be evacuated. Who has jurisdiction to order and run the evacuation? The city, state, or federal government? How do they coordinate with each other? Imagine the U.S. government has received intelligence indicating that terrorists plan to use commercial airliners to launch biological agents into U.S. cities—and the pilot of an incoming foreign commercial aircraft has indicated that he is sick. Should the plane be allowed to land? Who has the authority to make this split-second decision?

In the wake of 9/11, these questions are not hypothetical. Students who take National Security, Law Enforcement, and Terrorism not only study these complex legal and policy questions, but have rare access to some of the key players who are addressing them. The seminar grew out of meetings that Professors Hal Edgar '67 and Debra Livingston held with law enforcement officials, who outlined the issues they have faced in the aftermath of 9/11. Prof. Edgar has written extensively on national security and intelligence, and Prof. Livingston, a former federal prosecutor, is an expert on law enforcement.

"The course presents fundamental legal issues," says Prof. Edgar. "For one, is the struggle against terrorism really a war, or is that a metaphor? The answer may affect a whole range of questions such as how and what the government may do in apprehending and prosecuting suspected terrorists, as well as how evidence is obtained. The more you conceptualize it as a true war, the more relevant the military precedent becomes."


Photo credit: Dustin Ross

The course cuts across a number of thematic areas, looking at counter-terrorism, immigration, and constitutional rights. It also addresses matters like the creation of a Department of Homeland Security and efforts to protect vulnerable chemical and nuclear power plants. Guest speakers from Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the FBI, and other key agencies have given students a close-up look at the issues at stake. The first time the course was offered, students read major portions of the Joint Congressional Inquiry Report into the 9/11 attacks and were assigned in groups to play the parts of the CIA, FBI, and other agencies. Students defended their agencies and specified what changes in law and policy were needed to be more effective.

"They played their roles magnificently," says Prof. Livingston. "It felt like a congressional inquiry into 9/11. The students profited a lot, making comments about how much they learned from each other and the complexity of some of the problems. Everyone reassessed their positions and acknowledged the complexities inherent in them."

Says Prof. Edgar, "This seminar is certainly among the more interesting courses I've taught at Columbia because the problems cross so many different fields. No one can know every relevant area of law—from foreign intelligence surveillance, to rules about confessions, to military law—so it was a good chance to read widely across bodies of law with which I hadn't had experience and for the students and professors to ask questions of one another."