Lawfare

Jeff Sessions Just Confessed His Negligence on Russia

The attorney general is aware of the threat Moscow poses to American elections — he just hasn’t done anything about it.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 18. (Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 18. (Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images)

The headlines from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday focused on his refusal to answer questions about his conversations with President Donald Trump and his declaration — dragged out of him with all the elegance of a tooth extraction — that he had not yet been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Lost in the back-and-forth and amid focus on his testy exchange with Sen. Al Franken about Russian contacts, however, was a truly damning moment about Sessions’s tenure at the Justice Department thus far.

That moment came not in the context of hostile questioning from a committee Democrat but in a perfectly cordial exchange with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse.

With Midwestern gentility, the Nebraska senator told Sessions that he wasn’t going to grill him about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Rather, he said, “I would like to continue talking about the Russians but in the context of the long-term objectives that Vladimir Putin has to undermine American institutions and the public trust.… We face a sophisticated long-term effort by a foreign adversary to undermine our foreign policy and our ability to lead in the world by trying to undermining confidence in American institutions.”

Russia will be back in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, Sasse argued. “We live at a time where info ops and propaganda and misinformation are a far more cost-effective way for people to try to weaken the United States of America than by thinking they can outspend us at a military level.… So as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and as a supervisor of multiple components of our intelligence community … do you think we’re doing enough to prepare for future interference by Russia and other foreign adversaries in the information space?”

You’d think this question would be a golden opportunity for Sessions. After all, if you’re a man who has had some — ahem — inconvenient interactions with former Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, you might relish the chance to answer a question about what you are doing to prevent Russian interference in the future, as a chance to go on offense and show how serious you are about tackling a problem that has undermined your reputation.

But Sessions’s answer did not inspire confidence: “Probably not. We’re not. And the matter is so complex that for most of us, we are not able to fully grasp the technical dangers that are out there.”

Sessions acknowledged “disruption and interference, it appears, by Russian officials” and noted that it “requires a real review.” But he said nothing about what the department is doing to ready itself.

Sasse followed up, giving him an explicit chance to spell it out. “So what steps has the department taken,” or should it take, “to learn the lessons of 2016 … in fighting foreign interference?” he asked.

Crickets from Sessions.

The department, he said, is specifically reviewing commercial, rather than political, interference from foreigners and the theft of trade secrets and data — an enforcement priority that in fact long predates the Trump administration. “We’ve got indictments that deal with some of those issues,” he said, perhaps not even realizing that he was not talking about the same subject Sasse was asking about. He noted that the department’s national security division has some “really talented people” — which is true but hardly constitutes a step he is taking to combat the Russia threat. And he touted the FBI’s experts, too. Then he acknowledged that, despite all this, the department’s capabilities are still not at the appropriate level yet.

As to a specific answer to Sasse’s question — that is, what has the department done or is planning to do to confront information operations threats from Russia in the future? Not a word.

Sasse returned to the point a few minutes later, and Sessions’s answer got even worse. Sasse asked: “Do you think the Department of Justice has a proactive role in looking at hardening our democratic process against foreign interference?”

Sessions responded that Sasse had made a “valuable point” and that if Sasse had any thoughts toward legislation, he was eager to hear them. But as to any proactive role on the Justice Department’s part, Sessions made only the following remarkable admission: “I am not sure we have a specific review underway at this point in time.”

You read that right. According to the attorney general, the Justice Department is not even reviewing the specific question of what policy or bureaucratic changes might be appropriate in establishing an active role for the department concerning the most basic defense of democracy.

Later in his five hours of testimony, Sessions had a chance to revisit the matter under similarly cordial questioning from Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “Are you aware,” the Minnesota senator asked, “of any efforts between the department and other federal agencies to assist states in this upcoming election to protect our elections from hacking?” Sessions responded blandly that the FBI has “capabilities and experience in many of these matters” and that he does “think it is an important matter,” and he insisted that electronic alteration of vote totals would be a “stunning disaster” and cannot happen. But as to any initiatives of the department he again offered not a word.

In short, the attorney general of the United States, though acknowledging and expressing confidence in the intelligence community’s assessment of foreign interference in the 2016 election and admitting that the government isn’t doing enough to guard against such activity in the future, could not identify a single step his department is taking or should take in that direction. He could not suggest a proactive role the department might play against foreign information operations. He could not even identify a policy review currently underway on the subject, though he agreed that one was appropriate. He could not identify legislation that might be helpful. And he could not name any departmental activity, beyond the FBI’s having capabilities, in support of states that might be targeted in upcoming elections.

This was a frank display of ignorant complacency in the face of a clear and demonstrated threat. The question of what exactly the Justice Department should be doing, what proactive role it should be playing, is a complicated one. But here’s a suggestion to begin with: DOJ should be at least thinking about the problem that Sasse posed. The attorney general’s testimony Wednesday gave no indication that the department is even doing that.

Susan Hennessey is managing editor of Lawfare.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare.

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