Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, will face the Senate Judiciary Committee for two days’ worth of confirmation hearings, starting Tuesday.
Just Security’s David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is one of several witnesses who will offer views on the president-elect’s choice to lead the Justice Department.
The committee has already posted the nominee questionnaire, where Sessions provided biographical information, including the 10 “most significant litigated matters” that he says he personally handled.
The Office’s National Security Responsibilities
When a president picks his Cabinet and other key posts to lead his government, national security watchers obviously pay close attention to who gets the jobs of defense secretary, secretary of state, national security adviser and CIA director.
Also at the top of that list is attorney general. But for many on the national security “beat,” whether that’s in the media or on Capitol Hill or elsewhere, the Justice Department is not usually where they focus their attention.
What opportunities will Sessions have as attorney general to shape national security law and policy? The short answer: Sessions and the Justice Department he leads will have a profound effect on how the U.S. protects the homeland and wages war overseas.
Some of the areas where Sessions will have the chance to shape policy: defending the legality of overseas wars and drone strikes, surveillance and other intelligence matters, leak investigations and whistleblowers, Freedom of Information Act cases, immigration, cyberactivity, detainee and interrogation issues, counterespionage and hate crimes.
Born in Selma, Alabama, Sessions has a law degree from the University of Alabama. He served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1973 to 1986. That same year, President Ronald Reagan nominated him to be a federal judge, but in an unusual move, the Senate rejected the nomination after several attorneys testified that he had made explicit racist comments (a detail he failed to mention in his nominee questionnaire).
Later, he served as Alabama’s attorney general for two years before joining the Senate in 1997. There, Sessions served on the Judiciary Committee, the Armed Services Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee.
He was one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump in February and has been shaping Trump’s policy and campaign ever since. He is a fierce opponent of immigration reform, a military hawk and a climate change skeptic.
In 2005, he voted against Senator John McCain’s 2005 anti-torture Detainee Treatment Act (his statement from that time can be read here). In 2015, he was one of 21 senators to vote against an anti-torture provision in the National Defense Authorization Act. For more background reading, click here.
Questions for Sessions
Just Security surveyed its contributing editors for questions that the Senate panel should keep in mind as it scrutinizes Sessions. Here are those questions (in no particular order):
Waterboarding and so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” are prohibited by domestic and international law, including legislation sponsored by Senators McCain and Dianne Feinstein that passed on an overwhelming bipartisan basis last year. Do you agree that such techniques are unlawful as a matter of international and domestic law, and will you commit to refrain from reinstating them?
Do you consider Korematsu v. United States valid law? In other words, do you believe that the president may lawfully order the internment of U.S. citizens on the basis of race, religion or national origin, without individualized suspicion of criminal activity?
Would it be lawful for the president or Congress to require U.S. citizens to register their religion with the government? What about a government-generated religious registry based on publicly available information? What about selecting immigrants who are legally permanent residents to register if they come from certain Muslim-majority nations?
Would it be lawful to ban non-U.S. citizens from entering the United States on the basis of their religion? Would it be lawful to selectively deport immigrants on the basis of their religion? In either context, would it be lawful to use national origin as a proxy for religion (for example, classifying people)?
The FBI reported that in 2015, 257 anti-Muslim hate crimes were committed in the United States, an increase of 67 percent over the previous year. What can the Department of Justice do to better protect American Muslims from hate crimes in 2017?
Should crimes committed against LGBT individuals because of their sexual orientation be considered hate crimes under federal law?
Should the Justice Department devote more or fewer resources to Civil Rights Division investigations of alleged police misconduct?
In your nominee questionnaire, you listed four civil rights cases among the 10 most significant that you litigated “personally” as the U.S. attorney for Alabama during the 1980s. How do you respond to critics, including the lawyers who handled the cases, who say you had no substantive involvement in any of them? Could you outline your personal contributions to those cases?
Kate Brannen is a national security reporter and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.