Deborah Pearlstein was the Director of the U.S. Law and Security Program at Human Rights First (HRF) from 2003-2007, where she specialized in constitutional law, U.S. counter-terrorism, detention and intelligence, executive power, immigration, national security policies, and the role of the federal courts. She is also a visiting lecturer in human rights and national security at Stanford Law School. Her father is a professor of physics at Indiana University-Purdue University, and her mother publishes IDUG Solutions Journal, a database software publication. Pearlstein graduated cum laude from Cornell University in 1993 and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1998. She is married to Dr. Christopher F. Chyba, a planetary scientist who was previously a member of President Bill Clinton’s National Security staff.
Before joining HRF in 2003, Pearlstein worked at the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, where she performed pro bono work on immigration, privacy, and election law matters on behalf of individuals and non-profit organizations. She also briefed and argued cases in trial and appellate courts, and wrote numerous briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. While at Munger, Pearlstein was a co-winner of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Award for her work on election systems reform in California following the 2000 presidential election. Prior to her work at the firm, Pearlstein clerked for Judge Michael Boudin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, then for Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court. While at Harvard Law, she was an articles editor of the Harvard Law Review and also served as a teaching fellow. Before starting her career in the law, Pearlstein served in the White House as a Senior Editor and Speechwriter for President Clinton from 1993 to 1995.
In June 2004, HRF accused the United States of holding terrorism suspects in more than two dozen detention centers worldwide, with about half of these operating in total secrecy. Commenting on HRF’s contention that the supposed secrecy surrounding these alleged facilities made “inappropriate detention and abuse not only likely but inevitable,” Pearlstein said: “The abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib cannot be addressed in isolation. . . . This is all about secrecy, accountability and the law.”
In March 2005, Pearlstein and HRF joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in the first federal court lawsuit to name a top U.S. official – Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld – in the alleged torture scandals in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Illinois on behalf of eight suspected terrorists, and charged that Secretary Rumsfeld’s actions violated the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes and international law.
On June 10, 2005, Pearlstein testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the Patriot Act, which HRF vigorously opposes. However, the testimony and questioning of Pearlstein and the three other witnesses, who were all called by Democrats, instead focused on detention centers and accusations of torture having nothing to do with the Patriot Act. As a result, Chairman James Sensenbrenner abruptly called off the hearing.