After 20 years of practicing law all over the world, Edward McNally ’79 offered to quit his job and start making photocopies full time.

“Before the sun went down on 9-11, I had already contacted the White House and told them that if it would help for me to run the Xerox machine in the basement of the White House, I would be on the next plane,” McNally said.

But the White House had a slightly different position in mind and named McNally the senior associate counsel to the president and the general counsel for the Office of Homeland Security.

McNally is working with former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to establish the structure of the new office, even as the Office of Homeland Security continues to face questions about the powers it wields.

“This is a lawyer’s dream job, maybe I’d even say it is a Yalie’s dream job,” McNally said. “Every single issue that America is confronted with today has a legal aspect to it, all of them quite novel, and they also have a policy and a political aspect.”

One of those issues is balancing civil liberties and national security, and McNally said there is a tension between these interests.

“The government has the primary first job of defending the Constitution,” McNally said. “War time does change things, and maybe the clearest example is in the First Amendment.”

Yale professor Charles Hill said he does not think the Office of Homeland Security has overstepped its authority.

“The Office of Homeland Security has not come even remotely close to encroaching on civil liberties,” Hill said. “Indeed, fear of being accused of doing so is keeping them from taking some important steps to improve security — steps that would not violate citizens’ rights.”

But amid controversy over the prisoners from Afghanistan being held in Guantanamo, McNally said some are less sympathetic to the position of the Office of Homeland Security.

“We’re apparently getting a lot of criticism in the last several days over the photo images of some prisoners in Guantanamo,” McNally said. “I don’t know how much of that is real and how much is misinterpretation of what the photos show.”

Yale Law School professor Paul Kahn said he thinks any criticism of the Office of Homeland Security’s role in the Guantanamo camp is misguided.

“I think [the Office of Homeland Security’s] role is coordination and policy recommendation, but it doesn’t have prosecution authority,” Kahn said. “I don’t even know if Tom Ridge is in the loop in regards to these prosecutions [in Guantanamo].”

McNally called the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks a “reality check” that has shown Americans that they are not immune to “serious threats from within.”

“The fundamental strength of America is that it was founded on an idea rather than a people. [But] what is our strength is also our weakness. The freedoms of our open society were turned against us in a pretty devastating way,” McNally said.

McNally said his Yale education and later career laid a good foundation for the work he is doing now.

“In some ways, I guess you could say I’ve been preparing my whole life for this kind of position,” McNally said. “There is an aspect to Yale that makes you hunger to make a difference, to get into the game.”