Practicing at the Intersection of Law, Policy and Technology
By Barbara Spector
In 2001 the Coalition to Support and Expand the Freedom of Information Act, a federation of some 40 organizations, inducted Beryl A. Howell ’78 into the Freedom of Information Hall of Fame. The honor recognized her work to ensure access to government information. Howell’s varied career has taken her from the courtroom, prosecuting gangsters and corrupt public officials, to the U.S. Capitol, where she served as general counsel for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
For a decade, until earlier this year, Howell made policy recommendations and drafted legislation on cybersecurity, electronic surveillance, online privacy, speech and intellectual property rights, and other issues. Howell helped craft the 1996 Leahy Electronic Freedom of Information Act amendments, which expanded the range of government records accessible in electronic format under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). “These amendments updated the FOIA to make the information available in a more consumer-friendly way,” Howell says. She also helped Sen. Leahy fend off proposals to impose new limits on the FOIA. “On [Capitol] Hill, you often count your successes, not just by the bills that pass, but also by the bills that are stopped — the bad ideas that should not become the law of the land,” she notes.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Howell led staff negotiations for the Judiciary Committee on the USA Patriot Act. “The Capitol building had been a near-miss target of the terrorists and, at the same time, we had to respond in a time of crisis,” she says.
Shortly after the attacks, during intense negotiations with the administration over the terms of the new anti-terrorism law, anthrax was found in the Senate office buildings. Howell and colleagues underwent nose swabs to test for anthrax and evacuated their offices, moving to “little cubbyholes in the Capitol,” she recalls. Before they moved, “My assistant frantically copied our working files off the computer onto a laptop,” Howell says. “We certainly could not afford to lose any time recreating our files.”
From 1987 to 1993, Howell was an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and deputy chief of the narcotics section. Her law-enforcement experience, she says, enables her to assess the controversies over the USA Patriot Act from a real-world perspective.
For example, Howell says, “Some of the concerns that have been raised about expansions of surveillance power focus on provisions that actually only codified investigative practices that were long-standing.”
In July 2003, Howell notes, the House of Representatives voted to roll back a provision of the act authorizing the government, when necessary, to conduct “sneak and peek” searches of suspects’ property without notifying them immediately. But Howell notes that “sneak and peek” searches were conducted before this provision was enacted and were judicially sanctioned — for example, to allow secret searches of a location for a kidnap victim without alerting the kidnapper and endangering the victim.
As a prosecutor, Howell supervised wiretap investigations and conducted grand jury investigations. She received the Attorney General’s Director’s Award for her prosecution of a Colombian money-laundering operation. In another high-profile case she led, 29 New York City building inspectors were convicted of extortion.
Howell earned her law degree from Columbia University, where she was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar. She served as a law clerk to U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise, District of New Jersey, and was an associate at a New York firm early in her career.
Since February 2003, Howell has been executive vice president of Stroz Friedberg LLC and managing director and general counsel of the firm’s new Washington, D.C., office. The firm provides consulting and technical services in computer forensics and computer abuse investigations for private- and public-sector clients. Howell describes her work as “cyber sleuths doing information age investigations” for use in litigation or internal corporate management.
These can be classic “whodunits”: who is hacking a computer system or sending harassing e-mails? The firm also helps clients respond to demands for electronic data in civil or criminal cases.
As managing director, “I’ve been dealing with a host of issues, ranging from the mundane to the significant,” Howell notes. In addition to addressing clients’ concerns and developing new business, she has set up the office and established employee benefits. “It has been harder than I thought — and more fun and more exhilarating,” she says.
Howell’s mother, Ruth Bronsweig Howell ’53, and sister, Debra Howell ’79, are also Bryn Mawr College graduates. “Bryn Mawr gives women confidence in their brainpower and the skills to learn any subject matter,” says Beryl Howell, who majored in philosophy. These strengths have served her well as she begins a new phase in her career, she notes. “I have to focus my skills in a different way.”
Howell’s husband, Michael Rosenfeld (Haverford ’78), is an executive producer at National Geographic Television & Film. They have three children: Jared, 13; Alina, 10; and Calla, 5.
Howell discusses her work with her children “so they understand that what I’m doing is important,” she says. “As a consequence, they feel a part of it.” After the Sept. 11 attacks, “It was comforting to them to know that I was working and doing my part to make sure the country was safe.
“They’re all incredibly proud of me,” Howell says. “That’s something I’m really thankful for.”
Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.