Senator Sessions’ responses for the record on openness and accountability

As the Senate Judiciary Committee is preparing to vote on the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, he is facing close scrutiny over responses provided during and subsequent to the January 10-11 hearing. OTG has pulled together a brief summary of Senator Sessions’ responses to Questions For the Record on issues directly relevant to our work; highlighting the responses relating to FOIA, the Senate report on torture, and data retention from cell-site simulators.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA):

Senator Patrick Leahy asked Senator Sessions about compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), specifically how he would enforce the “presumption of openness” in the face of the President-elect’s resistance to transparency? Senator Sessions noted that the FOIA “is an important law that has played an integral role in providing the public with the tools necessary to oversee their government,” and committed to ensuring that “the Department and the Executive Branch appropriately comply with FOIA, as well as work with you and this Committee to make sure that the letter and the spirit of FOIA is carried out.”

Read the full response to Senator Leahy’s questions, here.

Senate Torture report:

Senator Feinstein noted that, more than two years after the Senate released a declassified 500-page summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program, the fate of the full report is the subject of contention.  

Despite protests by Senator Feinstein and Sen. Leahy, 40 members of Congress, and a broad coalition of open government and accountability groups, the DOJ has maintained that, until accepted by executive branch agencies, the report is a congressional and not an executive branch record. To date, the DOJ has instructed its officials and those of the Defense Department, the CIA, and the State Department, to lock the report in a vault and to not read it. Senator Feinstein asked Senator Sessions whether he had read the Report, to which he responded “No.” She further asked whether he would commit to reading the full report if confirmed – and instructing appropriate officials to read the full report, to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past? Sen. Sessions responded that “If confirmed, I will ensure that I and other appropriate officials are fully briefed on the contents of the report to the extent that it is pertinent to the operations and mission of the Department of Justice.”  When Sen. Feinstein asked if he would “commit that you will not return the Justice Department’s copy of the report to the Senate?” Sen. Sessions affirmed that he would make that commitment.

Read the full response to Senator Feinstein’s questions, here.

Data retention from cell-site simulators:

Senator Al Franken raised questions about the use of investigative technology by law enforcement, drawing attention to cell-site simulators – devices that transform a cell phone into a real-time tracking device. He noted that the DOJ issued guidance in September 2015 setting forth practices concerning the collection and retention of data gathered through the use of this technology. Senator Franken asked Senator Sessions whether, if confirmed, he would commit to keeping the guidance’s data retention and transparency provisions in place – and if not, why? Senator Sessions averred that while he is generally familiar with this policy, he is not privy to any internal Department of Justice data regarding the effectiveness of the policy in balancing the interests of law enforcement and public safety with protection of civil liberties. He said, if confirmed, he would “carefully review and evaluate this policy, including any relevant data.”

Read the full response to Senator Franken’s questions here.

All of the material related to Senator Sessions’ nomination hearings, including the Committee Questionnaire, the responses to Questions For the Record, and letters received by the Judiciary Committee, can be found here.