Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2005 | People

Inside the Situation Room

By Angie Toomsen
Teach and His Students

Tension mounts around the presidential briefing table. Increasing intelligence chatter suggests a possible terrorist attack on U.S. soil. One of Al Qaeda’s most sophisticated weapons technicians, “The Egyptian,” has fled Pakistan by boat and is rumored to be heading for an undetermined U.S. port. Intelligence agents can’t guarantee that the vessel is carrying either “The Egyptian” or any weapons of mass destruction. They can’t guarantee it’s not.

The President’s cabinet and advisers face a barrage of questions. How much time before the ship reaches the U.S? Where’s it headed? What’s the worst-case scenario? Is it carrying innocent civilians?

The Commander-in-Chief refuses to take any answer at face value and halts all qualifications in their tracks. He wants specific answers about what he can legally do to stop the threat, and he wants those answers five minutes ago.

The anxiety around the table reflects what officials might feel at the highest levels of national security decision-making, but a few details make this particular day in the “situation room” a little different. For one thing, Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld are conspicuously absent. The national security adviser, who doesn’t look a day over 23, wears a tight black muscle T-shirt, white sneakers, and denim shorts, with an iPod dangling from his belt loop. Instead of the Pentagon, this meeting takes place in a UI College of Law lecture room. The whole crisis is made up.

The President is actually the Honorable Judge James E. Baker, a former career civil servant who served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton and legal adviser to the National Security Council. Now an associate judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, he visits the UI each summer to teach “Managing National Security,” which uses a simulated presidential briefing as a learning tool.

While at the National Security Council—the President’s principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior advisers and cabinet officials—Baker conceived the idea of the course and proposed it to Yale University, his alma mater. Today, he teaches the course at Yale, Georgetown, and also—thanks to a mentor and a friend who hailed from Iowa—at the UI.

After seven years at the National Security Council, Baker says he felt an obligation to share what he knew and to fill a void in law students’ curricula. National security has always been important, he says, but never more so than now. “At this time of national peril, as we face the prospect that weapons of mass destruction will be used against our country, it’s important that the public and not just specialists in government understand how, where, and why decisions are made,” he says.

Students Disscusing

For the past three summers, Baker has taught the class over five weeks. This year, time constraints forced him to condense it into a weeklong seminar. To prepare students for the final role-playing exercise, whether it comes on the fifth day or in the fifth week, he first covers national intelligence and its constitutional and legal parameters. He begins by discussing the scope of national security and describing the executive process for collecting, analyzing, disseminating, and applying intelligence information. “Without good intelligence, national security becomes reactive rather than proactive,” says Baker. “When the threat comes as a terrorist attack at home, the absence of proactive intelligence is fatal.”

He also discusses the national security tools the president has at his disposal, including the military, the intelligence instrument, law enforcement, and diplomacy. He defines terms like covert action, counterintelligence, and rendition (the transfer of suspects to other countries) and examines the law applicable to each.

“A basic understanding of national security law helps you understand some of the critical issues facing the nation and the world today,” says Eric Andersen, associate dean and professor at the UI College of Law.

One of those issues is, of course, the war in Iraq. Baker argues that people must know enough about national security to hold the government accountable in times of conflict. “The public has a duty to ask and to test that our government is making sound decisions and doing all that it can to advance U.S. national interests, to provide for the security of our forces, and to do both things in a way that’s consistent with American values,” Baker says.

Many students acquire a concept of intelligence from Tom Clancy novels and Hollywood films such as True Lies. Baker warns that a career in national security is far from a movie role. “It’s not sexy—it’s hard work,” says Baker. “Some students are disappointed I don’t tell them any secrets.”

Still, waitlists for the course are long, and evaluations reflect students’ appreciation for Baker’s real-world experience. The day before the simulated briefing, Baker outlines a hypothetical national security crisis and assigns each of his 18 students a role, such as Secretary of State, Attorney General, Director of Homeland Security, and Secretary of Defense. The students have to research possible solutions and come to class prepared to brief the President with the information he needs to take action.

Steady and unflappable, Baker puts students on the spot, forcing them to dissect the implications of their advice. He presses for answers: “What are my options?” “Can I do this constitutionally?” “If I sink this merchant vessel, who’s to know?” “Can I afford not to sink it?”

“Students don’t always realize how hard it is to come up with good solutions to issues where American lives are at risk,” says the judge. “Many national security issues require the President to choose between a number of bad or imperfect options, rather than correct and incorrect solutions.”

Second-year law student Miriam Timmer-Hackert, who hopes to work in civil rights law and is a member of Iowans for Peace, says the course provided insights into some of the pro-war decision-making processes that she prays will change. “I wanted to see what it was like from the non-pacifist side,” says Timmer-Hackert, of Iowa City, who became Attorney General for the day.

“Madam Attorney General, is this legal?” Baker repeatedly asked. Timmer-Hackert found it challenging to offer advice about the use of force from a purely legal standpoint. Her instincts told her to first answer Baker’s questions on a moral, political, and diplomatic basis. Though her views remain pacifist, she’s come to appreciate the complexity involved in national security decisions.

“I realized it’s not [these officials’] job to keep the world happy; it’s to keep Americans safe,” she says. “I found myself seriously asking, ‘Are these 11 lives [aboard the suspicious ship] worth the 30 percent chance that San Francisco could be attacked?’ It’s a difficult position.”

While some of his students aspire to careers in national security, Baker contends that the information in the course applies well beyond the situation room. He believes that everyone has a stake in national security law. Of course, national security doesn’t apply only to war or terrorism. Hurricane Katrina exposed weaknesses in the country’s security response to natural disasters, while a flu pandemic could wreak even more widespread havoc. Since 9/11 and the increase in global terrorism, though, most people—including Baker—think in terms of weapons of mass destruction, as well as more traditional national security threats.

“Some people have argued that the greatest threat to our national security may be from a nuclear device being smuggled into the United States,” Baker says. “I don’t believe that, as a nation, we’ve fully accepted this threat. We haven’t directed our resources with the urgency of a country that could be struck by a nuclear device in the next five to ten years.”

He stresses that, while many decisions are made behind closed doors in the corridors of power, by officials who have access to information that’s necessarily kept secret, national security affects all of us.

“9/11 brought about the socialization of danger, when the public came to realize that all elements of our society—not just military personnel serving overseas—are at risk from terrorist attack and violent death,” he says. “Now, everyone needs to understand his or her part in national security. Once people learn how real the threat of terrorism is, they will see there is no more serious topic in law school—or anywhere.”