Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s nominee for the position of U.S. attorney general, is being grilled by the Senate today about voting rights, immigration, civil rights, prosecutorial ethics and his own voting record. But when asked about issues related to technology — including hacking, surveillance, encryption, and law enforcement access to data — Sessions’ answers were relatively vague.
Like Trump, who has promised to develop a cybersecurity strategy during his first 90 days in office, Sessions is bullish on improving America’s cybersecurity but lacks concrete plans to do so.
“We must honestly assess our vulnerabilities and have a clear plan for defense, as well as offense, when it comes to cybersecurity,” Sessions said. However, Sessions claimed not to have a deep understanding of cybersecurity issues, including recent controversy over Russian hacking into American political organizations, and said that his role as attorney general would not allow him to help develop a response to security breaches. “That is something that’s appropriate for Congress and the chief executive to consider,” he explained.
In response to questions from his fellow senator Lindsey Graham, Sessions implied that he had not read recent intelligence community reports on the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, claiming that his only information on the hacking came from media reports.
When Graham asked Sessions if he believed the Russian government was responsible for the hacking, Sessions replied, “I have done no research into that. I know just what the media says about it.” Graham pointed out that the FBI had attributed the cyberattacks to Russia, which Sessions qualified, “At least that’s what’s been reported, and I’ve not been briefed by them on the subject.”
Sessions later seemed to question again the intelligence community’s attribution of the hacks to Russia, saying, “It’s really, I suppose, goes in many ways to the State Department, our Defense Department, and how we, as a nation, have to react to that, which would include developing some protocols where when people breach our systems, that a price is paid even if we can’t prove the exact person who did it.”
If the investigation into Russian hacking leads to Trump or anyone involved in the Trump campaign, Sessions said he was not sure if he would recuse himself from handling the prosecution — but that he would recuse himself from any potential future prosecution of Hillary Clinton.
Sessions also claimed ignorance about Microsoft’s recent legal victory requiring U.S. law enforcement agencies to follow proper procedure when requesting data that is stored overseas. He said he would work on “understanding the new technology but the great principles of the right to privacy, the ability of individuals to protect data that they believe is private and should be protected. All of those are great issues in this new technological world that we’re in,” adding, “I do not have firm and fast opinions on the subject.”
However, Sessions did commit to continuing his record of supporting surveillance bills. Sen. John Cornyn presented Sessions with a list of surveillance issues, including Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, encryption and national security letters, and asked Sessions if he would commit to protecting American security. Sessions, who has a long history of supporting government surveillance, responded: “I will.”