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NEW @ THE ACADEMY

Meet our Fellows: James E. Baker (‘19)

The Hon. James E. Baker is a professor at the College of Law with a courtesy appointment in the Maxwell School. Also serving as Director of the Institute for Security Policy and Law, Judge Baker teaches classes on national security law, emerging technologies and national security, ethics, leadership, intelligence, and the laws of war.

Judge Baker is one of the most highly regarded national security lawyers and policy advisors in the nation. Starting his career as an Infantry Officer in the US Marine Corps, Judge Baker subsequently joined the staff of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan before serving the US Department of State, Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and National Security Council. Mostly notably, he served on the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces for 15 years—the last four as Chief Judge—before stepping down in 2015. The Court hears appeals arising under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and its decisions are subject to review by the US Supreme Court. Judge Baker authored more than 250 opinions for the Court, addressing criminal law and procedure, rules of evidence, jurisdiction, and the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution.

Since 2015, when he was appointed by President Barack Obama, Judge Baker has served as a Member of the Public Interest Declassification Board, established by Congress in 2000 to promote transparency in national security activities. He is also a Member of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) Board of Directors; a former Consultant for the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity; and a former Chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security, which promotes public understanding of, and careers in, national security.

In addition to his exemplary public service, Judge Baker has been a teacher and scholar his entire career. He has taught as an Adjunct or Visiting Professor at Yale Law School (his alma mater, where he received a B.A. and J.D.); University of Iowa College of Law; University of Pittsburgh School of Law; Washington University School of Law; and the Georgetown University Law Center. His courses have included those on Managing National Security, Challenges in National Security, Federal Courts, and Ethics and Leadership. In 2017-2018, Judge Baker was Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies, where he pursued scholarship on emerging technologies and artificial intelligence. Previous recipients of this prestigious fellowship include former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Adm. William Fallon, former Commander of US Central Command.

Here is a recent interview with the Honorable James Baker:

  1. How did you get involved in public service? 

I have a two-part answer.  Specifically, I was walking through the college Post Office one day and saw that the floor was littered with brochures – gold and scarlet brochures.  Every student in the college, it seemed, received a brochure and then immediately threw it on the ground.  I picked one up off the floor and found that it was an advertisement for the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Class.  I signed up without telling my family.  When my mother found out, she gave me a sense of what a Drill Instructor might sound like when I arrived at OCS. 

More broadly, I felt at the time and continue to feel to this day that anyone fortunate enough to be born in this country has a responsibility to give back in some manner to the greater whole.  In my case, I felt a sense of duty to serve as a citizen soldier; it felt commensurate with the educational opportunities I had been given, by which I mean marvelous teachers, starting with my family at home.  When I saw the Marine Corps brochure on the floor, I knew immediately I would sign up.

(Ironically, I did not receive the brochure, but I did find my mother’s weekly letter waiting for me in my mailbox.)     

  1. Which of the Academy’s Grand Challenges resonates most with you?

“Making Government AI Ready” and “Modernize and Reinvigorate the Public Service.”  There is obviously a fair bit of synergy between the two.  As a teacher, I believe I have a duty to teach the next generation of students what they need to know, not necessarily what I happen to know.  Thanks to my friend Jason Matheny, I came to realize a few years back that the constellation of technologies we refer to as AI will transform the nature and practice of national security.  As a result, I felt I should study the subject and convey what I know about national security law, process, and policy to the next generation of practitioners so that they might more wisely wield the power of AI as well as mitigate its risks.  By the way, when I started to look at the issue, I could not spell “AI.”  AI may feel ungovernable, but I am living proof a normal person can learn the subject and do their best to try and regulate its use.

  1.   Reflecting on your career thus far, is there a highlight, a greatest accomplishment or a funny story you’d like to share?

My friend Judge John Sparks has a cautionary rule against sua sponte humor.  If I knew what sua sponte meant, I might follow the rule.  In any event, I think I will choose a highlight, which is both more judicious than choosing humor and gives me an opportunity to celebrate people I admire.  Although it may seem trite, the highlight of my career has been the opportunity to work with and become friends with an extraordinary group of public servants who give daily meaning to our oath to “support and defend the Constitution.”  I am thinking here of everyone who served on our Chambers team, my NSC Legal team, and of course, friends who have served their last post like Peter Murphy, Peter Scialabba, John Blee, Jack Ledbetter, and Bob Formanek. 

  1. What advice would you give someone wanting to start a career in public service?

I have four bits of advice. 

First, never value the job more than you value your own integrity.  The government can do a lot of things to you, but the one thing it can never do is take away your own sense of self-respect.  Only you can do that.  And, the surest way to do that is to do something unethical, immoral, or unlawful or to stand aside while someone else does so because you do not have the moral courage to do the right thing and stop it or them.

Second, don’t be in such a big rush to get where you are going that you miss the opportunity to do the most good where you are.  General Buehl, for whom I served as an aide-de-camp, used to say that when the Marine Corps assigns you as the “Fat Rendering Officer,” the officer who measures the mess hall meat, be the best Fat Rendering Officer there is.  No one joins the Marine Corps to render fat.  Admiral Stockdale, one of America’s greatest military leaders to come out of the Vietnam War (in which he spent eight years as a POW), put it a different way based on his study of the Stoic Philosophers: you cannot always control what happens to you, but you can “Act well the given part.”    

Third, think big.  A lot of legal work, like government work, involves seemingly small and repetitive tasks.  It is also easy to get frustrated with bureaucracy, or petty management, or … you fill in the blank.  But not if you think big.  That small legal task is part of a greater whole called constitutional government and the rule of law.  When you remember how your bit fits into the greater whole, it is a whole lot easier to stand in the foxhole in the rain and smile at the opportunity.

Finally, service comes in many forms.  I am partial to school teachers and to the Corps – The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the Marine Corps, and others.  But you do not have to serve in a corps to serve your country or a greater good, you just have to turn to the person next to you and smile, or pick up a towel in the rest room.  Lt. Brad Snyder taught me that last bit just a few years ago and I have been picking up litter ever since.  What a relief to know you do not have to engage in forty-years of government service to engage in public service.  

  1. What was the best trip you’ve ever taken?

Two answers.  First, the trip down the stairs into the post office my freshman year of college when I decided to join the Marines.  So much of what has followed in my life occurred because I started my career in the Marine Corps.  That is where I found the confidence to find my voice.  It is also where I confirmed what my mother always taught: it doesn’t matter where you are from, where you went to school, or who your parents are -- what matters is what you bring in terms of character, competence, and commitment -- the three Cs.   

If you are looking for a more traditional travel answer I would point to two trips.  The year we lived in London when I was in second grade and the trip I took to India and Nepal with my sister.  Both trips changed my sense of place in the world.  I was fourteen and my sister was sixteen when we flew halfway around the world to visit friends in India in 1974.  Along the way our flight stopped in Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran, and Karachi.  The sooner we learn that we are part of a greater world, the sooner we can look for bonds of common humanity, and work together to solve transnational problems.  

  1. What was the last book you read or one that you would recommend?

I would recommend that everyone read the Constitution and as an added bonus The Declaration of Independence.  I read the Constitution every two weeks.  It reminds me that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves as a nation, a people, and a government.

As for books, I am tempted to say something like, Thucydides in the original Greek, or like my colleague Tom Odell, Candide in French of course.  I wish.  I did just read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas on the airplane.  It is a witty and passionate essay about gender equality and the prevention of war.  I would match the book with Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, about duty and the citizen soldier, and John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, about the experience of the common soldier at Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. 

  1. Do you have a favorite podcast, journal, newspaper, or other kind of media?

Yes.  The Economist.  It is beautifully written.  And, as Admiral Stavridis says, it is as good a current event briefing as the President’s Daily Brief.

  1. What do you work toward in your free time?

Thank you for assuming that I am working and that it is toward something.  My son just got his license, so I have resigned my duties as chauffeur.  If you are really asking whether I have any hobbies the answer is running when my knees permit; playing hockey when my knees permit; and doing the NYT Crossword puzzle when my mind permits.     

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