March 28, 2018

Law students' eyes opened during national security crisis simulation

Dana Hagg shares her experience at Georgetown Law National Security Crisis Invitational.

Ticking time-bomb scenarios are rare in real life. Most national security and intelligence work, especially for national security lawyers, happens over extended periods of time. Unfortunately, sometimes disaster strikes, and national security lawyers must be able to manage during a time of crisis. That is the goal of the annual Georgetown Law National Security Crisis Invitational: To simulate a national security crisis, so that future national security lawyers can make mistakes, and learn how to work effectively under extreme pressure.

Professor Michael Nesbitt (UCalgary Law) selected me and Noah Burshtein, both third-year law students, to travel to Washington, D.C. to represent the University of Calgary in this year's simulation.

We were among 115 participants, a group which included law students and lawyers from across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. This event is the brainchild of professor Laura Donohue at Georgetown Law Centre, and this year marks the 10th time she has run the simulation. Professor Craig Forcese (University of Ottawa) leads Team Canada, which consisted mostly of law students from the University of Ottawa, the University of Windsor, Thompson Rivers University, and for the first time, the University of Calgary.

Role-playing and numerous storylines test participants' capabilities

Participants play assigned roles within national security agencies across government, and must respond to an unfolding national security crisis within the applicable legal and policy frameworks. The crisis consists of numerous storylines that are driven by a "Control Team" of 70 volunteers, who are mostly Georgetown alumni working in national security law.

The storylines for Canada were vast, and were crafted to meet specific pedagogical goals, and the facts are designed to test participants' decision-making capacities in a dynamic, cluttered, and incomplete informational environment.

Developments to the storylines are broadcast via "Video News Network" (VNN), a mock news network that is accessible online and broadcast live on dozens of television screens around the venue. VNN interviewed participants throughout the simulation, sometimes without forewarning, and their on-air responses were often subsequently criticized by "the media." To prepare participants for the hard-hitting VNN reporters, all participants attended a crisis communications training session run by Jeanne Meserve, the Emmy-winning national security correspondent to CNN for almost 20 years.

Each participant is assigned his or her role several weeks before the simulation. I played a legal adviser to Public Safety Canada, so I had to understand federal emergency powers, along with understanding the workflow between various national security portfolio agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Canada Border Services Agency, and the RCMP. In practice, my job involved rapid-fire drafting of legal opinions, and a lot of pleading with the various agencies to take the time to communicate with each other. I also spent a very long night reviewing several CSIS warrants that would be argued the next morning before a mock "Federal Court."

Team Canada learns from mistakes to improve over time

During the course of the simulation, everyone — myself and the rest of Team Canada included — fell prey to red herrings and ignored key information. That is hardly surprising given that the simulation is, in part, designed to overwhelm. The simulation began at 12:01 a.m. on Friday morning and ran straight through until 3 p.m. on the Saturday — that's 39 hours straight, and Team Canada worked around the clock. I got by on a total of four hours of sleep, which was unpleasant, but may prove to be a useful skill when I begin articling this summer.

Despite the fatigue, Team Canada's performance improved dramatically over the course of the simulation. This was most apparent in our interagency communication. We had studied the seminal Air India and O'Connor Commission of Inquiry reports in class to learn importance of verifying and sharing information. During the simulation, however, we learned that lesson the hard way; our failure to verify and share information caused us to waste nearly half a day on a wild goose chase.

By the end of the simulation, however, we were communicating much more proactively, and we "saved the world" just in time — that is, just in time for the cocktail reception. That is the best part of the simulation: it ends, no matter how many mistakes we make. Participants are encouraged to take risks and be creative, because for the many participants who continue on to practice in national security law, real-life national security crises leave little room for error.

Neither Noah nor I will be practising in national security law, as we are both articling at full-service private practice firms. Even though we will not be making much use of our new national security law expertise, we certainly learned how to operate under intense pressure. Hopefully, our articles will be crisis-free — but if something comes up, we will know how to handle it.

eam Canada at the annual Georgetown Law National Security Crisis Invitational.

eam Canada at the annual Georgetown Law National Security Crisis Invitational.

Photo courtesy Georgetown Law 2018