Getting to Know the Nominated Counterterrorism Chief

The things you might or might not recall about Matthew Olsen

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Who's that secret agent-looking official with the poker face pictured above? As of today, he's the president's newly nominated counterterrorism chief. As Obama describes him, Matthew Olsen "will be a critical part of my national security team as we work tirelessly to thwart attacks against our nation and do everything in our power to protect the American people." Handy database Who Runs Gov runs simply with, he's "one of the most powerful attorneys in the federal government." Since Olsen just got a bit-more-prominent today, here's a few other things that you might, or might not recall about him:

  • From '94 to '06 he was a federal prosecutor in Washington DC's attorney's office  In 2005, The Washington Post wrote about a special DC legal unit that would focus on handling the spike in terrorism cases. Olsen was on that team. Their job:

In Washington, the national security section will bring together prosecutors handling cases involving terrorism, terrorism hoaxes, espionage, leaks of classified information and other sensitive matters. It will include roughly 10 prosecutors who already had been spending much of their time on national security cases, plus two or three more prosecutors to be added later. The section will be led by Matthew G. Olsen, a veteran prosecutor and supervisor in the office who spent the last 15 months working on a detail as special counsel to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

  • He oversaw rules introduced after the Bush administration's electronic-surveillance program, Newsweek relays. Wrote Bloomberg about Bush's anti-terrorism eavesdropping efforts in 2008:

Eliminating the wall that discouraged intelligence officials from sharing evidence with prosecutors has led to a quadrupling in the number of criminal investigations drawing on evidence gathered by spy agencies since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department says. The actual number is classified.

To meet the growing demand for such information, the department created a unit to regulate its use, said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen, who oversees the new section. "We want to make sure that everyone knows what each other's doing,'' Olsen said in an interview. The Justice Department wants "to make sure that we're taking full advantage of this information, this very valuable information."

  • He was in charge of 'deciding the fate' of the Guantanamo detainees  In 2009, Olsen was appointed by Eric Holder to oversee the Guantanamo Review Task Force to, as the Associated Press reported at the time, "consider whether to transfer, release or prosecute the detainees, or figure out some other 'lawful means for disposition' if none of those options is available." In early 2010, BBC News interviewed him on the progress made and the risks of freeing detainees. One of his answers:

"No decision about any of these detainees is without some risk. We need to be clear about the fact that we're making predicted judgements at some level about whether somebody is going to pose a risk to us in the future if they are released. But I do think that what we are doing is bringing to bear the right people and the right approach to make those decisions in the best possible way."

Per Who Runs Gov, in late January 2010, "the task force's concluding recommendation to hold 48 prisoners indefinitely without trial frustrated civil-liberties groups and those hoping to see the detention center closed."

  • Later that summer, he was appointed general counsel at the National Security Agency  The job always seems to be described in secretive terms. Here's Newsweek's fascinating lede about the position in a July 2010 article noting Olsen's appointment:

One of the most powerful, but least visible, legal jobs in the federal government is the post of general counsel—chief lawyer—at the National Security Agency. The ultrasecret agency, based in a huge complex at Fort Meade, Md., uses some of the world’s most powerful computer systems in a global electronic-eavesdropping network that civil-liberties advocates call the closest thing the U.S. government has to Orwell’s Big Brother.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.