President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the country’s law enforcement has cleared the Senate.
The Senate voted 52-47 on Wednesday to confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions, whose record on civil liberties issues—including digital rights—has drawn fire from Democratic lawmakers and public interest groups.
EFF has expressed concerns about Sessions’ record on surveillance, encryption, and freedom of the press. Those concerns intensified during his confirmation process.
Throughout his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and his written responses to additional questions from lawmakers, Sessions made a number of troubling statements. He said he would support legislation to enable a privacy-invasive Rapid DNA system. He refused to definitively commit not to put journalists in jail for doing their job. He dodged questions about Justice Department policies on Stingrays, and wouldn't commit to publish guidelines on how federal law enforcement uses government hacking. He called it “critical” that law enforcement be able to “overcome” encryption.
His Senate record on surveillance is also disturbing. Sessions helped to derail reform to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in the Senate. He also opposed the USA FREEDOM Act, a set of moderate reforms to the NSA’s mass collection of information about Americans’ domestic phone calls. In 2015, he went so far as to pen an alarmist op-ed against the bill, in which he claimed that the bulk phone records collection was “subject to extraordinary oversight” and warned the bill “would make it vastly more difficult for the NSA to stop a terrorist than it is to stop a tax cheat.”
During the hearing, USA FREEDOM sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy pressed Sessions on whether he is committed to enforcing the surveillance reform law. Sessions responded that the prohibition on bulk collection “appears to be” the governing statute for U.S. government surveillance. His qualified answer raises concerns. And while he pledged to follow that law, he couldn’t confirm it prohibited bulk collection of domestic phone records in all cases. (It does.)
In a marathon, all-night debate in opposition to Sessions, Senate Democrats pointed to his track record on surveillance and privacy as a source of concern.
Montana Democrat Sen. Jon Tester pointed to Sessions’ repeated votes in favor of “the most intrusive aspects of the Patriot Act.” He asked, “Will he fight on behalf of government officials that listen into our phone calls or scroll through our emails or preserve our Snapchats?”
Washington Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell said she is concerned by Sessions’ support for “President [George W.] Bush’s warrantless wiretapping and surveillance programs,” and his support for backdoor access to encrypted technologies. “I do have concerns that the president’s nominee…may not stand up to the President of the United States in making sure that the civil liberties of Americans are protected.”
Now that he has been confirmed, EFF and other civil liberties advocates will work to hold him accountable as Attorney General and block any attempts by him or anyone else to broaden the government surveillance powers that threaten our basic privacy rights.