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White House Official Talks to Students About Iran, National Security Issues

Two dozen EHS students got an inside look at White House decision-making — including the crafting last week of new U.S. sanctions on Iran — during an intimate conversation with a top National Security Council official.
U.S. Navy Captain Tom Leary, the deputy legal advisor to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, came to campus to talk with advanced government students about the National Security Council’s role in the White House and how the council crafts its recommendations regarding military, foreign, economic, and other policy related to national security. He also advised the students on issue briefings they are preparing as class assignments.

Leary and other lawyers on the NSC staff advise O’Brien as well as the White House broadly. “The lawyers like me are behind the scenes,” he told students, “but we work with the senior leaders and their staff to make sure that everything we do as a government is considered, deliberate, and done legally.”

Leary said the range of issues that the legal team reviews “is both deep and wide,” ranging from international drug cartels to trade negotiations. Among the country’s top national security priorities, he noted, are matters involving China, Russia, terrorism, North Korea, and Iran.

Iran dominated his work following its missile attacks last week on U.S. military bases in Iraq, a retaliation for the U.S. drone strike in early January killing Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. The NSC legal team was assigned to help devise new sanctions that the U.S. could impose on Iran. The turnaround time: a matter of hours. “That was an immovable deadline,” Leary said. “No one was going to the President and say, ‘Hey, sir, it’d be great if we had another six hours to get this done.’ ”

Working into the early hours of the morning, he and the other lawyers considered how to craft an order in accordance with current laws as well as within the powers of the president and the agencies implementing the sanctions. “Because these were professionals who have been working these issues for a very long time, we were able to come together as a team and work through some of the knottier issues,” Leary said. “At the end, out pops an executive order that the president can sign and that cabinet officials can point to explain exactly how we’re going to exert pressure on Iran.”

The government students met with Leary as they finish research on a national-security issue. They are digging into such timely topics as the crisis in Venezuela, foreign cyber threats, and the Hong Kong democracy movement. Next week, they will deliver their findings as if they were an NSC official briefing the national security advisor. 

Leary, who has been with the Navy’s Judge Advocate General's Corps for more than 20 years, advised the students to prepare well but also to read their audience. “If the eyes are glazing over, or the person you’re briefing doesn’t seem to be picking up what you’re laying down, pivot to another approach.”

He also urged them to “hit the key points right up front,” saying, “That may be the only opportunity you get to talk, because the phone could ring and — I’ve seen this happen — we find out that Iran has lobbed ballistic missiles into the Middle East somewhere.”