Post submitted by Kwame Newton, JD ’20
On November 2, 2017, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty visited Harvard Law School to reflect on his experience as he comes to the end of his service in the Department of Justice (“DOJ”). He also discussed how the field of national security prosecution has evolved since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Having worked as a prosecutor in state, federal, and international contexts, Mr. Chakravarty spoke to the unique nature of national security prosecution, which involves not only the traditional pursuit of suspects who have already committed a complete offense, but also the complex and vital task of prevention. In positions with the DOJ’s National Security and Anti-Terrorism Unit and the FBI, among others, Mr. Chakravarty’s successful prosecutions have included those of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for his involvement in the Boston Marathon bombings, and Tarek Mehanna, for attempting to join al-Qaeda in Yemen and providing translation services to the Zarqawi network, the predecessor to ISIS that was aligned with al-Qaeda.
These well-known convictions demonstrated the national security community’s ability to contain harmful individuals who succeeded in carrying out domestic terrorist attacks or supporting terrorism abroad. However, Mr. Chakravarty made a point to confront and unpack the routine dilemmas faced by those in his field. For these prosecutors, balancing the effects of different harm-prevention strategies with the national interest is a necessity. Mr. Chakravarty emphasized that achieving the right balance is possible only through coordination with the broader intelligence community and both public- and private-sector partners. In his experience, personal connections with agents and analysts showed Mr. Chakravarty the importance of relationships across government; efficient sharing of actionable intelligence allowed him to prosecute or intervene as a way of preempting terrorist attacks, not just as a response to them.
In conducting anti-terrorism prosecutions at the DOJ, Mr. Chakravarty relied on intelligence from surveillance and confidential human sources to proactively investigate terror suspects. The often inchoate or conspiratorial nature of offenses in this area, however, led to challenging questions and decisions when it came time to pursue charges. Unlike assessing the danger that suspects continue to pose after a completed terrorist plot, Mr. Chakravarty noted, when preparatory or unsuccessful attempts at national security-related offenses are involved prosecutors must make a more complicated determination of suspects’ potential danger to society and pursue the outcome most likely to minimize the risk posed by that individual. To illustrate the range of possible law enforcement responses this can entail, he referred to the FBI practice of pursing maximum charges for the sake of incapacitation in contrast to his involvement in cases where disrupting terror does not always entail lengthy prison sentences.
Mr. Chakravarty pointed to the conviction of three men running Care International, a United States-based charity used to funnel money out of the country to secretly support the mujahedeen and promote jihad. These convictions, and that of Tarek Mehanna, demonstrate the disruptive value of prosecuting supporters of terrorism in Article III courts. However, after speaking about these examples of prosecution’s disruptive potential, Mr. Chakravarty acknowledged the risks of overt investigation by describing the escape of Ahmad Abousamra, a co-conspirator of Mehanna’s who fled the United States for Syria upon being questioned by the FBI. Abousamra would later become an instrumental propagandist for ISIS. Ultimately, Mr. Chakravarty suggested, the risk of alerting individuals like Abousamra, as significant as they are, is still outweighed by the need to proactively investigate and pursue charges that might thwart known supporters of terrorism. In support of this argument he pointed to the conviction of Mehanna, Abousamra’s co-conspirator, who is currently serving his sentence in federal prison.
In concluding his reflections, Mr. Chakravarty described his role at the DOJ as being centered not only on the disruption or containment of threats, but also on achieving those goals while preserving a just, reliable judicial process. While the physical threats that terrorism poses are typically the most sensational, Mr. Chakravarty also strongly emphasized his belief that the suspension of civil liberties through fear would be one of the greatest threats possible to America’s national security. In this respect, he also expressed his admiration for the continued resilience of the rule of law in cases like the ones he has prosecuted, and deemed adherence to these principles as a main goal of national security policy as a whole.