National security and the rule of law are sometimes at odds, but a new center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School seeks to shine a light on hot-button issues including cyber warfare and targeting killings.

The law school billed the Center for Ethics and Rule of Law (CERL) in a formal announcement as an “interdisciplinary, nonpartisan institute dedicated to protecting rule of law values and illuminating their relation to current policy on a number of different topics.”

CERL will be different from existing national security centers in that it won’t just focus on policy, but also on how national security efforts compliment or violate the rule of law.

“I think lawyers have an obligation to look at rule-of-law questions in the context of national security emergencies,” said Penn law professor Claire Finkelstein, founding director of the center. “It’s easy to forget the legal parameters when people are panicked about national security issues.”

Finkelstein conceived of the center last year, when she was co-director of the school’s Institute for Law and Philosophy. In that role, she organized several conferences on national security issues — most notably a panel about targeting killings that was held three weeks before Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. The resulting volume of research was well received; Finkelstein decided that a center dedicated solely to national security and the rule of law was in order.

“This is the most compelling issue relating to the rule of law right now,” she said, especially in light of the rapidly changing nature of warfare. She plans to examine the role and legal obligations of lawyers and psychologists regarding torture, cyber warfare, transparency and the expansion of executive power.

The center will debut on September 11 with a discussion by a panel of experts about the major questions at the intersection of national security and the rule of law.

In October, the center will host a cyber warfare panel featuring prominent voices including retired General James Cartwright, who until 2011 served as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of the center’s goals is to bring together theorists with practitioners, including military attorneys and Defense Department officials, Finkelstein said.

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