Privacy and Surveillance Laws: A Tug-of-War

Benjamin Powell '96, Former General Counsel for Three Directors of National Intelligence, Discusses the Balance Between National Security and Privacy

New York, March 11, 2014—The United States struggles to find the right balance between protecting civil liberties and ensuring the safety of American citizens and allies—and it always will, said Benjamin A. Powell ’96, a distinguished Columbia Law School alumnus who served as the general counsel for three directors of national intelligence, in a March 7 presentation on campus.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Columbia Law School Professor Matthew C. Waxman, Powell discussed the history of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which began operations in 2005; the challenges he faced while serving as general counsel there; and congressional oversight of intelligence agencies.
Benjamin A. Powell '96, former general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Powell, who is now a partner in WilmerHale’s Washington, D.C. office, said the intersection of privacy rights and national security is difficult to navigate.
“We’re always going to have that tug-of-war,” he said.
As an example, Powell said Congress is reluctant to take the steps necessary to fight cyber attacks because of backlash against information gathering in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified surveillance programs. By the time the public is ready to support revisiting outdated laws, it may be too late, he said.
“We’re in an empirical experiment,” Powell said. “We’re going to find out whether our control systems can be penetrated.”
Powell’s talk was sponsored jointly by the National Security Law Society and the Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security, which Waxman directs.