Sessions met with Russian ambassador at least twice in 2016
Those meetings were not noted on his security clearance form
Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not disclose meetings he had last year with Russian officials when he applied for his security clearance, the Justice Department told CNN Wednesday.
Sessions, who met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at least two times last year, didn’t note those interactions on the form, which requires him to list “any contact” he or his family had with a “foreign government” or its “representatives” over the past seven years, officials said.
The new information from the Justice Department is the latest example of Sessions failing to disclose contacts he had with Russian officials. He has come under withering criticism from Democrats following revelations that he did not disclose the same contacts with Kislyak during his Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year.
Sessions initially listed a year’s worth of meetings with foreign officials on the security clearance form, according to Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores. But she says he and his staff were then told by an FBI employee who assisted in filling out the form, known as the SF-86, that he didn’t need to list dozens of meetings with foreign ambassadors that happened in his capacity as a senator.
After CNN’s story published, a spokesman responded to the reporting with a statement, saying that Sessions was instructed not to list meetings like the ones with Kislyak on his form.
“As a United States Senator, the Attorney General met hundreds – if not thousands – of foreign dignitaries and their staff,” spokesman Ian 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.”
A legal expert who regularly assists officials in filling out the form disagrees with the Justice Department’s explanation, suggesting that Sessions should have disclosed the meetings.
“My interpretation is that a member of Congress would still have to reveal the appropriate foreign government contacts notwithstanding it was on official business,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who specializes in national security law.
Zaid added that in a similar circumstance he advised a member of Congress to list all foreign contacts – including those made during official US government business.
To obtain a security clearance, a federal official is not required to list the meetings if they were part of a foreign conference he or she attended while conducting government business. Sessions’ meetings, however, do not appear to be tied to foreign conferences.
The omission comes after problems that Trump adviser Jared Kushner and the President’s ex-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, have had on their own security forms. Kushner prematurely submitted his SF-86 form without listing foreign contacts and had to notify the FBI the next day that he was willing to provide the information. Flynn is under investigation for not properly disclosing payments linked to Russia for his foreign trips.
Lawmakers have raised questions about Sessions’ meetings with Russian officials while he played a prominent role in the Trump campaign – meetings that he only disclosed after The Washington Post revealed them. He is under scrutiny as well for his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey despite his recusal from the Russia investigation.
Sessions could be a witness before the House and Senate intelligence panels as part of their ongoing probes into potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia, lawmakers said. And attendees at a classified House briefing last week with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, said Sessions’ name was raised when lawmakers asked if the attorney general had a role in the Comey firing. Rosenstein, sources said, declined to comment, but noted that such matters could be investigated by Robert Mueller, the recently named special counsel in the Russia probe.