DOJ releases portion of Sessions' security clearance form sought in FOIA lawsuit
Posted July 13, 2017 5:39 p.m. EDT
The Justice Department released a section of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' security clearance form in response to a federal lawsuit Thursday, resurfacing questions surrounding his contacts Russian officials that the former Republican senator has previously tried to put to rest.
An advocacy group, American Oversight, sought the release of Sessions' SF-86 security clearance form in March, along with any notes prepared by FBI background investigators relating to Sessions' contacts with Russian officials, including Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
On Thursday morning, the Justice Department released a redacted copy of the SF-86 that Sessions had completed, which included the "Foreign Government Contact" section and a box checked "no" where asked if he had had contact with foreign governments in the previous seven years, including embassy officials.
Justice Department attorney Anjali Motgi suggested at a court hearing in DC later Thursday that because Sessions had reported on the SF-86 that he had not held meetings with foreign officials, it was not brought up by FBI interviewers. "Maybe upon further reflection" you will realize it won't seem that anything was missed, Motgi told the oversight group.
A department representative did not immediately respond to CNN's inquiry regarding the substance of what was redacted on the form.
CNN reported in late May that Sessions and his staff were told by an FBI employee who assisted in filling out the SF-86 that Sessions didn't need to list meetings with foreign officials that happened in his capacity as a senator, according to DOJ spokesperson Ian Prior.
"As a United States senator, the attorney general met hundreds -- if not thousands -- of foreign dignitaries and their staff," Prior said. "In filling out the SF-86 form, the Attorney General's staff consulted with those familiar with the process, as well as the FBI investigator handling the background check, and was instructed not to list meetings with foreign dignitaries and their staff connected with his Senate activities."
Some who have served in the federal government say it is not unusual to receive seemingly conflicting advice from investigators.
A career government official, who went through the security clearance renewal process during the Obama administration, asked a government investigator if she had to list every contact with a foreign official encountered in her work capacity and was told no.
"My interpretation is that a member of Congress would still have to reveal the appropriate foreign government contacts notwithstanding whether it was on official business," said Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who specializes in national security law. "There is no exception. But any agency can expand or contract a reporting requirement."
After his confirmation hearing, Sessions disclosed a meeting with Kislyak in July on sidelines of the Republican National Convention and one in September in Sessions' Senate office.
Flores further explained Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian, German and Russian ambassadors.
Later in June, Sessions tried to squash reports regarding another potentially undisclosed meeting with Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in DC.
"Though I do recall several conversations I had during that pre-speech reception, I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials," Sessions told members of the Senate intelligence committee. "Let me state this clearly: I have never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election."
But American Oversight attorney Cerissa Cafasso also cast doubt on the thoroughness of the FBI's search for its interview notes during Thursday's hearing.
"It's possible that there are no records responsive to that, but we don't know," Cafasso said. She said we do know that Sessions met with Kislyak, "so there is the possibility it came up" in the interview.
"The FBI searched and there were no responsive records," Motgi said.
US District Court Judge Randolph Moss instructed the parties to confer further on document production issues outside of court, adding he did not believe FBI notes should be a difficult item to locate.
After initially declining to release the relevant section of the SF-86 Wednesday, the DOJ informed the court Thursday morning that "the Department of Justice, in consultation with the attorney general, has consented to a discretionary release of this record," despite what DOJ called its "appropriate assertion of FOIA exemptions" in an earlier denial letter Wednesday night to the group seeking the records.
During the hearing, the oversight group additionally protested a decision by the department to not produce Sessions' signature page from the disclosure form, which it says had been included in their request.
American Oversight is also seeking FBI records on communications between White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and the FBI, the FBI and media, and FBI and Congress concerning February 2017 news reports of the investigation into the Trump campaign's Russian contacts. The government's searches for responsive materials were due to be completed by Wednesday.
The next court date is August 14.