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October 22, 2008 (NEW YORK) – U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey made a case for the government’s lawyers and the decisions they made in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001 when he gave the Harold Leventhal Memorial Lecture October 2.
Mukasey cautioned against questioning the lawyers’ good faith as he contextualized the politics of national security and cautioned against second guessing the Justice Department’s decisions in hindsight, beyond the heat of crisis. Questions national security lawyers confront are “as complex and consequential as they come. Lives and the way we live them may hang in the balance,” he said. “Political leaders and the public must not forget what was asked of those lawyers seven years ago.”
A graduate of Columbia University and Yale Law School, Mukasey, a federal judge, joined Columbia Law School as a lecturer-in-law in 1993 and taught the popular Seminar in Trial Practice each spring until his appointment as U.S. Attorney General in November 2007.
Mukasey said that the most surprising and challenging aspect of his job as Attorney General was reading the classified daily briefs on the nature and scope of the terrorist threat.
“I thought I knew something about that subject,” he said, as the judge who presided over some of the nation’s most important and complicated terrorism-related cases, including the 1993 trial of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 co-defendants on the first World Trade Center attacks. But he described the briefs as “simultaneously sobering and alarming,” and the plots as “creative and deadly.” He continued, “The enemies that we face have a presence literally in every part of the globe and yet in many places they are virtually undetectable.”
Mukasey called the questions about how to deal with terrorism, “among the most challenging that a democratic government can face.” Mukasey set the questions out: “How we as a nation should seek to protect ourselves, whether the steps we take are proportional to the threat and consistent with our own history and principles, where are the legal lines that will be drawn in this new and very different conflict, and as a matter of policy how close to those legal lines we should go, and whether the lines can and should be redrawn.” He said that lawyers and law schools as forums for debate and as training grounds for lawyers play a key role in finding answers.
Describing a “political pendulum” between timidity and aggression in the nation’s efforts to protect itself, Mukasey said, “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.”
He 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.”
About 180 students and faculty attended the lecture, and were invited to ask questions afterward.
Professor Nathaniel Persily asked, “Is there a power you wished you had?” Mukasey, displaying the humor he is known by his students and colleagues, replied without missing a beat, “I wish I had the power of prophesy.”
During the discussion, Mukasey even made a reading recommendation. “A good reading and a close reading of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” ” he said, “and you will never have an unclear thought.”
First-year student Kathleen Vermazen said, “It was interesting to hear someone answer questions from such an informed group. Usually you see the media trying to pin someone down.”
Elizabeth Broomfield, also a first-year student, said, “To have only been at the law school for a month and to see the Attorney General speak – it's the sort of honor you dream of when you apply to law school.” She continued, “Being able to examine a question of national security and constitutional law with the Attorney General was an amazing opportunity, especially as a 1L.”
The Harold Leventhal Memorial Lectureship was established by former law clerks, colleagues and other friends to commemorate Harold Leventhal (1915–1979), who graduated from Columbia Law School in 1936. A dominant influence in the development of federal administrative law, he served as a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Past Leventhal speakers include Professor Paul Freund, Peter Calvocoressi, the Hon. Arthur Goldberg, Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, Philip A. Lacovara ’66, Professor Cass R. Sunstein and, in 2007, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School joins traditional strengths in international and comparative law, constitutional law, administrative law, business law and human rights law with pioneering work in the areas of intellectual property, digital technology, sexuality and gender, and criminal law.