Matt Olsen: The Line

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Matt Olsen held so many important and difficult jobs in federal law enforcement and national security that it is hard to know where to begin. A son of North Dakota and a graduate of the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School, Matt worked as a civil rights prosecutor, an Assistant United States Attorney, on the staff of FBI Director Bob Mueller, as the Executive Director of the Guantanamo Review Task Force, as the General Counsel of the National Security Agency, and as the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Though we could dedicate an episode to his work in any one of those posts, his work as a civil rights prosecutor – fresh out of a judicial clerkship – was fascinating and vital. There, he focused on enforcing the Voting Rights Act – a landmark civil rights statute – in several southern states to ensure that minority citizens were not disenfranchised.

Later, appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to lead the Guantanamo Review Task Force, Matt found that assignment to be among his most challenging and difficult. In that role, it was his responsibility to try to meet one of President Obama’s earliest stated objectives – to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay within the president’s first year in office. That, as Matt describes, turned out to be an enormously complex task – a conundrum given the population there and the difficult decisions that had to be made about who should be released, who should be tried – either in a civilian court or in a military commission setting – and who could neither be tried nor released. The process that Matt and his team built to inform those decisions was serious and thoughtful, but the task was inordinately complex and the headwinds that his task force confronted – political and practical – were fierce.

Matt also served as the General Counsel for the National Security Agency – the leading signals intelligence agency in the world, and one of the most important sources of information for U.S. national security officials. That job required striking a balance on uncertain and often shifting legal terrain. One one hand, Matt was keenly aware of – and devoted to – his duty to the Constitution and to the laws that govern intelligence collection. He knew his lawyers and NSA operators should never cross “the line” and that it was therefore crucial that they understood where the line was and not get too close to it. On the other hand, Matt clearly understood the need to confront dangerous and relentless counterterrorism and counterintelligence adversaries because of the harm they could inflict on U.S. persons and our national security interests. He approached this job – and this balancing act – in a careful, ethical, and deliberate manner.

Matt Olsen was a thoughtful and principled public servant, a gifted leader, and a true expert on national security. He is also humble, kind, and deeply thoughtful about the proper role the government should play to secure our nation and protect its citizens while honoring its commitment to civil rights and civil liberties.

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