Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey Gives Leventhal Lecture

Winter 2009

When former Attorney General Michael Mukasey delivered the annual Harold Leventhal Memorial Lecture in October, Columbia Law School Professor Nathaniel Persily asked if Mukasey could have any superpower, what he would choose.

“I wish I had the power of prophecy,” Mukasey replied.

That statement summed up the focus of the lecture, in which Mukasey made a case for government lawyers and their actions in the realm of national security.

When he first became attorney general in 2007, Mukasey thought he knew something about national security. As a judge for the Southern District of New York, he presided over complicated terrorism-related cases, including the 1993 plot to blow up New York City landmarks. But his daily classified briefings never ceased to surprise him. “The enemies that we face have a presence literally in every part of the globe,” he noted, “and yet in many places, they are virtually undetectable.”

The question of how to deal with terrorism is among the most challenging that a democratic government can face, said Mukasey. The government must determine how the country should protect itself, if the steps it’s taking are proportional to the threat at hand, and whether legal lines can and should be redrawn.

“The next administration’s ability to accomplish our shared objectives of keeping
the nation safe and protecting civil liberties will depend, as it always has, on getting careful, impartial legal advice from lawyers who deal with national security issues and getting the best lawyers it can find to do that work,” Mukasey said. “We must not inhibit them from performing this critical function. We also must not inhibit those charged directly with performing intelligence functions from asking for candid and honest advice before they act. The stakes are simply too high.”