How presenting diverse, informed perspectives on national security made Just Security a must-read in Washington, DC, and around the world.
BY MICHAEL OREY
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JAY VOLLMAR
When Russian forces streamed into Ukraine on February 24, taking much of the world by surprise, the editorial team of the online forum Just Security, led by co-editors in chief Tess Bridgeman ’10 and Ryan Goodman, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law, reacted quickly. Within two weeks, the blog published more than 20 articles on the conflict, and—in trademark Just Security fashion—featured the kind of broad range of authors, topics, and genres that has made it a distinctive and highly respected voice in the national security information ecosystem.
For example, Michael Schmitt, a leading international law scholar and former US Air Force judge advocate specializing in operational and international law, put together an “expert backgrounder” on the legal framework for possible NATO responses to Russian cyberattacks. Chile Eboe-Osuji, who served for nine years as a judge on the International Criminal Court, including as president of the court from 2018 to 2021, authored an opinion piece calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his troops. Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel, political science professors at McGill University and Tufts University, respectively, who have written extensively about Ukrainian and Russian politics, offered an analysis arguing against the idea that the Russian attack was primarily a response to the expansion of NATO. And Brianna Rosen, a senior fellow at Just Security who had worked on national security issues in the Obama White House, wrote a simulated Presidential Daily Brief memo, presenting a fictional—but seemingly highly realistic—account of Putin’s mindset, motivations, and calculus on Ukraine.
When Just Security launched in 2013, says Goodman, who was also a co-founder of the site, its principal aim was to “broaden the conversation” around national security and present a greater variety of perspectives. Nine years later, Just Security has firmly established itself as a must-read publication for those working in the field. “Its reputation is sterling,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, chief executive of Washington, DC, think tank New America. A former senior diplomat in the US Department of State and former dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, Slaughter praises Just Security for “the clarity and integrity of its voice when it comes to questions of human rights and holding the powerful accountable.”
Scholars who contribute to Just Security testify to the prominence of its platform. “I hear regularly in my work how countries (ambassadors and their experts) read and are influenced by what they read on Just Security,” says Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a University of Minnesota Law School professor who also serves as the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights. “Many times I’ve received outreach from policymakers or journalists who learned about me and my work from reading Just Security,” notes Yale Law School Professor Oona Hathaway, who, like Goodman, served as special counsel to the general counsel for the US Department of Defense during the Obama administration. The forum’s 108,000 followers on Twitter amplify its reach.
In the years since its inception, Just Security has evolved into a multifaceted online publication. In addition to articles, the site also offers a curated roundup of news every weekday, and features special projects that integrate large quantities of information or analysis on a single subject. A 2020 Just Security series on racial justice and national security, edited by executive editor Matiangai Sirleaf, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2023. Current events have led certain issues—drone killings, threats to democracy, and Ukraine—to draw a high level of attention at different times.
Since 2018, Just Security has been housed within NYU Law’s Reiss Center on Law and Security. Bridgeman—former special assistant and associate counsel to President Barack Obama, as well as former deputy legal advisor to the National Security Council—became its co-editor in chief, alongside Goodman, in 2020.
“Just Security has tremendous reach across communities interested in national security, human rights, and foreign policy,” says Bridgeman. “It’s one of the few places that is able to bring those threads together and provides a platform that is more holistic in the way that it is able to approach the pressing issues of the day.”
Accountability for Drones
The “war on terror”—in particular the battle against ISIS and Al Qaeda—was very much in the headlines as President Barack Obama began his second term in 2013. When Just Security began publication in September of that year, it devoted substantial coverage to the use of drones for targeted killings by the United States. The varied perspectives offered on this issue included pieces by human rights scholars and advocates who raised concerns about the legality of the drone strikes and the deaths of civilians, as well as a post by Harold Koh, who had worked as the top lawyer at the US Department of State during Obama’s first term. In an October 2013 post, Koh, who was a founding editor of Just Security and former dean of Yale Law School, credited Obama for clarifying standards on drone use while also calling for more transparency and an end to the “Forever War.”
Bridgeman notes that presenting the views of experts and advocates from countries affected by US national security policy is “a critical piece of what we do.” Among the first of these “Local Voices” pieces was “Somalis Harmed by Suspected Drone Strikes Demand Accountability,” authored by Abdullahi Sheikh Abukar, who at the time was executive director of the Somali Human Rights Association. Other posts in the series have featured authors from countries including Haiti, Sudan, and most recently, Ukraine.
“Just Security has really changed the debate around national security, counterterrorism, and war,” says Jameel Jaffer, who as an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union litigated numerous cases involving issues such as targeted killings, warrantless wiretaps, and torture. “This debate has always been dominated by voices associated with the intelligence agencies, the military, and military contractors, and it still is, but Just Security has provided an immensely important platform for other voices and other perspectives.” Jaffer is currently the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. (Like other regular contributors, such as Ní Aoláin and Hathaway, he is listed as an executive editor on Just Security’s masthead.)
In recent years, Just Security has also focused significantly on the internal threat to US national security from what Goodman calls “democratic backsliding.” Some issues are the familiar ones that dominated the headlines during Donald Trump’s presidency: Russia’s actions to influence US elections; Trump’s relations with US intelligence agencies and the Department of Justice; attempts to pressure Ukraine; the impeachments; and efforts to overturn the 2020 election, culminating with the January 6 Capitol insurrection.
But Just Security’s authors often take the broader view that puts such incidents in a context that goes beyond any one political figure or presidential administration. Norms erosion, Goodman emphasized in an interview, did not begin or end with Trump, but was part of a continuum that has taken place throughout “the long post-9/11 period.” Authors looking at solutions have likewise taken the long view, including in a series of posts in late 2020 and early 2022. Grouped under the “Good Governance Papers” heading, these pieces explore “actionable legislative and administrative proposals to restore and promote non-partisan principles of good government, public integrity, and the rule of law.” In one example, Dakota Rudesill, a law professor at Ohio State University, urged Congress to pass a law reducing the potential for the president to order “reckless, unwarranted, or otherwise illegal use of nuclear weapons.”
One of Just Security’s other hallmarks is presenting information in a variety of formats, including compilations, digests, tables, and forensic-style dissections of documents and testimony, as well as standard prose commentary and analysis. A June 2019 post, prepared by Goodman, for example, offered a side-by-side comparison of public statements by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Attorney General William Barr about Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The differences between what the two men said, the post noted, “are, in many cases, stark.” Two years later, the day before then-FBI Director Christopher Wray was scheduled to testify about the January 6 attack before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Goodman and Andrew Weissmann posted suggested questions for Wray. (Weissmann, currently a professor of practice with the Peter L. Zimroth Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and a distinguished senior fellow at the Reiss Center, had served in a variety of positions in law enforcement, including as a lead prosecutor in Mueller’s Special Counsel’s Office and as general counsel for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.)
Goodman can point to numerous instances in which these posts have served as useful resources. “Congressional staff have thanked us for the work we do,” Goodman says. “We have seen real impact, for example, in the questions members of Congress have posed to the executive branch relying on our work, and in news broadcasters featuring our authors’ articles.”
A ‘Sprint’ on Ukraine
In a November 2020 post titled “Turning the Page: A Biden Presidency and the Role for Us,” Bridgeman, Goodman, and then-editorial director Kate Brannen wrote, “We at Just Security look forward to continuing to deliver expert analysis that holds those in power accountable, stays on the lookout for executive overreach, and fosters robust congressional oversight.”
During President Joe Biden’s first year in office, no topic dominated Just Security’s coverage; indeed, what stands out is the variety of issues explored and perspectives offered. Three authors with military backgrounds—John Cherry, a US Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and judge advocate; Kieran Tinkler, a Royal Air Force squadron leader and legal officer; and Schmitt, the former US Air Force judge advocate who is now a professor of international law at the University of Reading—co-wrote a piece on protecting civilians during combat operations. Eric Swalwell, US Representative from California, wrote about COVID-19 as a national security threat, advocating for legislation to help the US respond to the next pandemic. And Amal Clooney LLM ’01, a barrister and human rights lawyer, wrote about the genocide committed by ISIS against the Yazidis in Iraq, and called on the Biden administration to reverse previous US opposition to a tribunal that would address the killings.
As Just Security’s roster of authors and volume of submissions has burgeoned, the platform’s editorial apparatus has grown as well. Bridgeman and Goodman now sit atop a masthead that includes Managing Editor Megan Corrarino and Washington Senior Editor Viola Gienger, both full-time. Others on the masthead with various titles—including 21 student staff editors from NYU Law and Yale Law School—contribute content and engage in editing on a part-time basis.
In December and January, Just Security’s editors, along with the rest of the world, watched as Russian troops massed along the border with Ukraine. “We thought we needed to draw people’s attention to how dangerous the situation was,” Goodman recalls. Articles published in the days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine included Ambassador Daniel Fried on the “11th-hour” diplomatic efforts to prevent war, MIT Professor Barry Posen on the dangerous rhetorical escalation, Lebanon Valley College Professor Chris Dolan on NATO’s need to boost hybrid warfare responses, and ALTE University Professor Natia Kalandarishvili-Mueller, from the country of Georgia, on the Geneva Convention implications of Russia’s “occupation by proxy” of eastern Ukraine.
Once the invasion happened, Goodman says, “we went into an absolute sprint of work with losing sleep and all the rest of it.” Rosen’s simulated Presidential Daily Brief, still in development, was quickly reframed to present factors to consider about Putin’s mindset in formulating responses to the attack, as opposed to deterring one. Former ICC Judge Eboe-Osuji reached out a few days later with his article, which, like Rosen’s, was fast-tracked for publication.
Two decades before Russia invaded Ukraine, the 9/11 attacks and the resulting “war on terror” became the dominant US national security focus, and in large part, concerns raised by policy and practices in prosecuting this war led to the launch of Just Security. Now, “the war in Ukraine, great power competition with Russia and China, the rise of illiberalism, domestic violent extremism, climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases represent pressing security challenges,” Bridgeman and Rosen wrote in a piece published in March 2022. In suggesting that the US concentrate on these threats, they also provided a preview of topics Just Security will likely be addressing for the foreseeable future.
Michael Orey is public affairs director at NYU Law.
Posted on September 8, 2022