2018 National Security Crisis Law Invitational Welcomes U.S., Australian, U.K. & Canadian Students

March 6, 2018 —

On Saturday, March 3, at 9 a.m., Ashley Nicolas (L’19) must advise the Attorney General whether a suspected terrorist detained abroad should be tried in an Article III court or extradited to Guantánamo Bay detention camp to go before a military commission.

Prior to law school, Nicolas deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, as an active duty U.S. Army Intelligence Officer after graduating from West Point. Today, she’s playing the role of the U.S. Assistant Attorney General in the 2018 National Security Crisis Law Invitational at Georgetown Law.

Over the course of several days, law students from Georgetown and around the world role play federal, state and local government officials facing a fast-breaking series of national and global security crises. One hundred and fifteen players from the United States, the U.K., Canada, and Australia will be tested on international cooperation with their foreign counterparts, information sharing across borders and much more. These are skills students don’t get from a textbook. 

Professor from Practice Mary DeRosa — who in real life was the former deputy assistant and deputy counsel to the president and National Security Council (NSC) legal adviser in the Obama Administration — serves as the president of the United States, pressing for information, legal analyses and advice from the Justice Department and other agency officials. Katy Pasieta (LL.M.’13), now an executive officer for the U.S. Navy’s legal service office in Hawaii, plays the National Security Council Legal Adviser.

Professor Laura K. Donohue watches from a corner of the room — when she’s not behind the scenes in the Control Room, overseeing the enormous operation. The exercise, which builds on previous iterations, requires years of preparation. Dozens of volunteer experts, almost all of whom are Georgetown Law alumni working in national security law, donate their time to ensure that the next generation of lawyers learns what they need to excel.

For many students, the Sim is the most rewarding — and challenging — experience they will encounter in law school.

 “In many ways, I felt like I learned more in the 48 hours of the Sim than I’ve learned in any other single academic experience,” Nicolas says afterwards. “In law school, we typically are dealing with concepts applied to a closed universe of facts, without any distractions. But during the Sim, the facts were dynamic, personalities were in play and we were consistently acting in very complex areas of the law. It is simple to learn the rules and take a test; the game completely changes when you have to actually put those lessons into practice under pressure.”

But this veteran, who is used to dealing with chaos in the U.S. Army and as a high-school math teacher, is coping with the pressure very well.

 “I didn’t get yelled at,” she says cheerfully during the Sim — when asked how the hearing went.

Connecting the dots

At the close of Day 1, more than 70 Control Team experts orchestrating the simulation in Hotung 2000 are pushing students on their ability to connect the dots: to find out what’s behind a particular crisis, to propose different courses of actions and to make recommendations. At this point, students are overlooking critical facts pertinent to a cyberattack, focusing on a red herring in a biological weapons attack and neglecting to consider what information they need — and what needs to be done — to rescue U.S., U.K. and Canadian passengers on a cruise ship damaged by ransomware.

“They are focusing, maybe, not with enough urgency on some situations that would really be affecting citizens…” DeRosa says, noting that this is typical for students at this stage. “They haven’t gotten to the point where they are thinking through…the options…part of the learning experience in the Sim is to try to be thinking about the way real decisionmakers would be thinking in these situations.”

But on Day 2, it’s starting to come together.

“Almost every string needed to be pulled more; yesterday, we just weren’t there with the facts,” Pasieta says. “Now that the facts are coming, [we] have the really weighty legal and policy issues. This is the fun day.”

Some students at the table playing government officials — including Nicolas and the student playing the Attorney General — are from Georgetown, but many are not. So they may not know that the man in a suit playing the U.S. vice president is Georgetown University’s real president, John J. DeGioia.

“This is an example of the very best of our university,” says DeGioia, who has now played the U.S. vice president three times. “I follow the flow of the simulation and, where appropriate, I will intervene,” he says of the role. 

“Over the years, our Law Center has become the best law school in the world for experiential learning…,” DeGioia adds. “Professor Donohue does an exemplary job putting together the finest simulation of its kind. It’s a privilege to be able to witness it.”

Leading the way

This is the tenth year that Donohue has run the simulation, now the premier exercise in the field. 

“The purpose is to get at the skills critical for national security lawyers to excel but which are rarely taught in law school,” Donohue explains. “Students must master not just the law, but the legal and political processes. We design the scenarios to test decisionmaking and to highlight how cognitive biases, group dynamics and professional judgment come into play.”

The Sim emphasizes information management, helping students to distinguish between what they know, what they need to know and where to get it — and who else needs to get the information, Donohue says.

“We also focus on leadership, going back to their analyze what they did right, and how they could improve in the future.” 

For the past decade, Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor has supported the effort, putting the law school on the cutting edge of legal pedagogy. He takes a personal interest in the exercise, alternating annually with DeRosa in the role of the U.S. president. 

“Given our location in Washington, D.C., Georgetown Law is the perfect place for a simulated exercise of this magnitude, with some of the leading experts in the national security arena taking part,” Treanor says. “We are happy to welcome students, faculty, volunteers — and especially our alumni — from around the world to the 2018 National Security Crisis Law Invitational.”

Learning from the mistakes

In Georgetown Law’s Moot Courtroom, a group of Georgetown Law alumni playing the Australian Parliament are questioning some students about a mock hostage situation that has ended very badly. The Australians suggest that the details were not accurately reported by Video News Network (VNN), the mock broadcast network run by a state-of-the-art technology team at the Law Center.

“Are you calling this fake news?” one official challenges.

A student reveals that they were, in fact, working towards a secret rescue mission with their U.S. counterparts. “Australia does not let things happen again,” she says pointedly. “We learn from our mistakes.”

Ansley Lacitis (L’14, LL.M.’15), an alum who participated in the simulation as a 2L student, notes that a lawyer can have the best legal background, but if they can’t communicate effectively to the public or to an elected official, that knowledge may be wasted. Lacitis now works as a communications director for the Washington State Democratic Party — when she isn’t playing a U.S. senator and a member of Australian Parliament in the Sim. 

“When you are a subject matter expert, whether military or medical or legal, you [may be talking to] senators who might have been looking at a briefing one minute before they sit down,” she says. “You have to be able to explain details and also be able to take the 20,000 foot view and explain something that is either at that moment on the news or is going to be on the news…I think the Australians did a great job.”


In Hotung 2000, retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Houck (LL.M.’92) is observing in order to develop his own simulation at Penn State Law, where he is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence. “It’s a prelude to try to bring a team here next year, so I’m really interested in the complexity of this,” he says. “It’s a fabulous program.”

Houck’s students will be in good company: participating schools include Australian National University, Fordham, George Washington, the JAG School, Ohio State, New York University, Penn, Stanford, Syracuse, University of Calgary, University of Ottawa, University of Virginia, University of Windsor and Washington and Lee law schools. Business students from Langston University played the roles of Goldman Sachs and Bank of New York Mellon. 

For people in the military, Houck notes, the law doesn’t become real until it is applied in action. “If you have the opportunity to put [the law] into practice in a safe environment like this, before you have to do it for real — it’s invaluable. It [gives students] a great deal of confidence in [their] abilities to perform in a real situation,” he says. 

Capt. Alix Holtsclaw (L’13), who now serves as defense counsel in the Air Force, flew in from Northern California to help out in the Sim — as she does every year. “I was a student on the other side — and now I come back to help make the machine move forward, to see how others handle similar situations,” she says.

In the Sim, Holtsclaw manages the e-mails that are deemed classified. “The students have to distinguish and follow the same rules that we do in the real world…where they got the information, who they can share it with. Now that we’ve added the other countries — Australia, the U.K., Canada — there’s another layer of complexity. It’s interesting to see the students work through the U.S. government classification and the international regime.”

But even members of the Control Team are surprised occasionally. “Apparently, in Canada, when they use Twitter, they will use the airport prefix as shorthand for the city,” Holtsclaw notes. “Several of us thought, is this an acronym we don’t know? What are they talking about?”


Lieutenant General James Clapper, the former U.S. Director of Intelligence, is also there to observe the Sim. During the day, Clapper records a special message for the participating students, in an interview with Adjunct Professor Carrie Cordero, a national security expert. 

“I was blown away by the magnitude and sophistication…” Clapper says. “We have attorneys who spend their careers in intelligence, and we need them…the training that lawyers get gives them a special talent or knack for helping me, a layman — I’m a political science guy — to understand the implications of the law.”

At the end of the day, Tom McSorley (L’12) and Chris Morgan-Reiss (L’13), who have been acting as VNN reporters on screens set up around the Law Center, give a light-hearted roundup of the state of the planet.

Nancy Fortenberry (LL.M.’11) of the CIA’s Office of General Counsel; Rosemary Hart of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel; and David Kris, formerly in the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, provide input as judges.

“The Georgetown Sim is the cream of the crop — it is fantastic,” Hart says, telling students to be proud of what they have accomplished. “You were hitting it out of the park.” 


At a concluding event in Gewirz Student Center, Donohue thanks more than 70 volunteers as well as the students. For many students, she notes, the Sim will launch their careers in national security law. Since 2009, more than 350 students — many of whom now practice as national security lawyers — have participated in the Georgetown Law Sim, gaining an experience that is taught nowhere else. 

“Thank you for joining us for our most complex simulation to date, and for working so hard,” Donohue says. “National security law is a difficult and rewarding field.... My hope is that this experience helps you to perform at your best, as you embark upon your careers.” Looking around at the assembled group, she adds, “We wish you all the best and look forward, in the future, to welcoming you back to Georgetown Law.”

The Georgetown Law Sim is a team effort. The core Control Team, which helped to draft the storylines, includes alumni Sarah Mortazavi (L’13), Alan Schuller (LL.M.’13), Phil Lockwood (L’16), Kevin Jinks (LL.M.’15), John Benton (L’10), Pete Pascucci (LL.M.’15), Jake Trumm (L’17), Nicole Hill (L’17) and Logan Perel (L’12, LL.M.’13). They worked with Kevin O’Doherty (L’12), Eric Day (L’13), Harry Koulos (L’14), Angelica Zolnierowicz (LL.M.’16), Tom Vincent, Adjunct Professor Leonard Bailey and others to draft the appropriate responses to player decisions and requests for information. Professor Mitt Regan (L’85) provided insight on professional responsibility. 

Nadia Asancheyev (L’09), executive director of the Center on National Security and the Law, worked for months to ensure that all the administrative details are addressed.

Vice Dean Jane Aiken (LL.M.’85), Professor Tanina Rostain, Distinguished Lecturer M. Tia Johnson, Adjunct Professor Carrie Cordero, and Mary B. McCord (L’90) of Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, were among the many Control Team members giving up their time on Saturday to assess the exercise and student performance.

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