The Harvard Law School/Brookings Project on Law and Security kicked off in September with the conference “Law, Security, & Liberty after 9/11: Looking to the Future,” which featured Gabriella Blum (from left), Rita E. Hauser Professor of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and co-director of the program, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, and Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Widening national security concerns

6 min read

New program points way to a post-9/11 understanding of concerns beyond terrorism

The searing images of the deadly 9/11 attacks make it almost an automatic response to view issues of national security through the lens of terrorism. But during the intervening years, analysts have come to see such threats much more broadly.

Professors and politicians agree that issues of public health, poverty, and crime are also dangerous to a country’s safety and security, and are often contributing factors to the unrest and instability that promote anarchy and violence. Together with terrorism, they argue, such topics must be included in an expansive understanding of the national and international security landscape.

A new collaboration between the Harvard Law School (HLS) and the Brookings Institution, the Harvard Law School/Brookings Project on Law and Security, aims to help define that widening view.

“With this program, we really combine the wealth of legal expertise in various fields that exists at Harvard with the richness of policy expertise and all the people that Brookings has to offer,” said Gabriella Blum, Rita E. Hauser Professor of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and co-director of the program. “There is a real synergy here between what each institution brings to the table. We also wanted a Washington base in addition to a Cambridge base to give our students direct access to policymakers.”

Development of the new program was largely driven by student demand. Acting like an umbrella organization, the program will unite a variety of earlier security programs and initiatives at HLS that were developed by students eager to explore and contribute scholarly research to the field.

Several years ago, students founded the Harvard National Security and Law Association (NSLA), a group that brings related programming to HLS. They also convened a group in affiliation with the Harvard Kennedy School to develop research projects that explore the dimensions of national security.

“They organized themselves around this topic and went to faculty and said, ‘Give us interesting work to do,’ ” said Blum, of the student-led Harvard National Security Research Group. In 2008, HLS students also formed the Harvard National Security Journal (NSJ), a student-edited online law publication dedicated to improving scholarship and discourse on national security.

Recognizing the growing interest, Blum and her colleague Jack Goldsmith, Henry L. Shattuck Professor of Law, persuaded Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a national security expert, to get involved. With Wittes on board as a co-director of the program, and with backing from HLS Dean Martha Minow, the initiative kicked off in September with the conference “Law, Security, & Liberty after 9/11: Looking to the Future.”

Topics during the two-day symposium included piracy, drug cartels, the ethics and law of domestic counterterrorism, and the presidency in the post 9/11 world. It also included an address from John O. Brennan, deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism.

But organizing events isn’t the prime goal of the new program, said Blum. Instead, its founders aim to develop interdisciplinary, scholarly research around the subject. Blum and her colleagues hope to craft publications, including white papers, opinion pieces, law reviews, and policy papers that reflect broad perspectives on security.

“The idea is that there will be enduring products that will serve a wide array of audiences,” said Blum.

The program will not be ideological, said Wittes.

“We really want to build a project that is nonideological, politically independent, and committed to the idea that these ideas are hard, that these problems are hard, and that the tent has to be very large, that wisdom isn’t going to come from one corner, and we aren’t going to reach it by shouting the other side down.”

Above all, the program will focus on helping people understand national security in its broadest sense.

The notion of security as “very much 9/11-oriented is a stagnated one,” said Blum.  While she and Wittes agree that subjects such as terrorism, detention and interrogation strategies, and targeted killings are part of the wider security picture, so too are developments like natural disasters and famine.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to understand security in any narrow way. You need a very comprehensive view to talk about security of development, of cyberspace, constitutional and international law questions, negotiation, law and religion, criminal law. Almost every field is related to security,” said Blum.

“This is the way to understand security in the broadest sense, and that is what we want to do.”

Working with an interdisciplinary team from scientists to ethicists, the program will first address the field of new weapons technology. Many analysts fear that the development of nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on an atomic scale, will lead to microscopic nuclear weapons and molecular machines called nanobots that can be used in bioterrorism devices.

Once such technology works, said Blum, it’s very difficult to control. And once it is widely available, there are a host of legal, ethical, economic, and even social and psychological questions to consider.

“You need to ask how a society functions with these threats around it. What does it do to communication? What does it do to privacy? What does it do to trust? What does it do to commerce? … We want to be able to offer various stakeholders the most comprehensive and interdisciplinary insight on these types of questions.”

“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for future law students to have this kind of access to both the academics here at Harvard who are interested in these issues and the resources that Brookings has,” said HLS student Brian Itami, an editor at NSJ and the co-president of NSLA. “I can’t think of anything like it.”