What’s a man who planned on being a small-town lawyer doing addressing a European conference on human rights and terrorism?
Timothy Keefer, BA ’88, can shed light on that mystery. The self-professed “hometown kid from Buffalo” is today chief counsel for civil rights and civil liberties for the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This past summer, he represented the U.S. as part of a delegation to a conference in Vienna sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, giving a talk called “Human Rights and the Fight Against Terrorism.”
Keefer’s office makes sure that, as they go about their business preventing and deterring terrorist attacks and responding to threats and hazards to the nation, Homeland Security’s 180,000 employees honor Americans’ civil rights. Among numerous duties, Keefer and his staff assess proposed legislation and regulations for potential civil-rights issues. Says Keefer, “We provide advice to DHS decision makers on the impact their proposed policies and programs might have on civil rights and civil liberties.”
His office also reviews complaints about civil-rights violations and does public outreach, especially within Muslim and Arab communities. Keefer’s conference address looked at the dual role that his office must play: “People have rights that need to be protected,” he says, “but we also want people to work in cooperation with us. We don’t want them to be afraid to contact DHS.”
Though his notions of small-town lawyering suggest otherwise, Keefer’s interests seem always to have been broader in scope. During his work in Russian studies at UB, he thought about joining the intelligence community in fighting the Cold War – arguably the predecessor to the war on terrorism. Indeed, his first job out of college was with the National Security Agency, where the analytical skills he’d honed in college stood him in good stead. “Being able to think through problems was key, as was analyzing information to come up with a position. I learned that at UB,” he says.
After law school at Washington and Lee University and clerking for judges in Washington, D.C., and Rochester, N.Y., Keefer returned to D.C. to work for the law firm of Covington and Burling. Within three months, he found himself involved in the firm’s election law group and smack dab in the middle of the 2000 presidential election dispute. Keefer and his colleagues went to Florida, where they drafted the Bush campaign’s responses to various court challenges mounted by Al Gore and his team and others.
“It was an incredible experience; I’d only been a practicing lawyer for three months,” Keefer recalls. “Everyone involved realized this was a once in a lifetime occurrence.”
Keefer’s next role was as special assistant to the U.S. Department of Labor’s acting solicitor Eugene Scalia (son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia). During Keefer’s time there, the federal government was creating the DHS and its Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. At same time, the U.S. government was also trying to establish a functioning government in Iraq. Keefer was asked to go to Iraq to be chief counsel for the Ministry of Labor and Social Services, but declined the opportunity. “I was also considering going to DHS to be chief counsel for civil rights and civil liberties,” he recounts, and that’s where he has spent the past two years.
Keefer’s daily activities are as varied as the numerous agencies under the DHS umbrella. Currently, he says, his office is doing a lot of work with people with disabilities, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “We head up the inter-agency Council on Emergency Preparedness for people with disabilities, and we’ve been using a network of organizations in the affected areas to identify people’s needs and tailor a response,” he says. For example, his staff might find accessible temporary housing or transportation for people in wheelchairs or with other physical needs.
According to Keefer, he and his staff face a multiplicity of issues, from the government’s storing of personal information to border and transportation security to immigration questions. “Many issues we face today are novel,” he explains. “For instance, screening and identifying individuals in a post-9/11 environment raise lots of questions that the government has never had to face, like how much information can you collect, and how do you use it once you have it?”
He admits his job is at times stressful: “We’re often very busy, with lots of meetings to attend and issues to face. And the issues can be so unrelated; it can take a lot of energy to switch gears. But I work with wonderful people, and the subject matter is so interesting.” The trade-off, he asserts, not only makes the job bearable, but also makes Keefer “feel good about getting up in the morning. The exciting thing is we’re trying to help DHS do an important job better and more effectively and, at the same time, ensure people’s rights are protected. We’re there to help inside and outside the Department.”
Written by Grace Lazzara