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Sessions: US Needs Cyber Rules So ‘Price is Paid’ If Breached

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. // Alex Brandon/AP

Attorney-general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions emphasized a need for cyber rules of engagement during the first day of his confirmation hearings.

“Partnerships will also be vital to achieving more effective enforcement against cyber threats. The Department of Justice clearly has a lead role to play in that essential effort,” Sessions said in his opening statement. “We must honestly assess our vulnerabilities and have a clear plan for defense as well as offense when it comes to cybersecurity.”

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Cybersecurity was only a small slice of the Tuesday confirmation hearing interrupted frequently by protests and dominated by questions about whether Sessions would uphold laws he opposed as a legislator. Here are some notable moments:

Russian Election Interference

Sessions broke from President-elect Donald Trump on the issue of whether the Russian government directed cyberattacks during the presidential election, accepting the conclusions of the FBI and the intelligence community when pressed by senators.

Sessions said he had “no reason to doubt intelligence findings” and though he hadn’t been briefed by the FBI, that its conclusions were “honorably reached.”

The government, specifically the State and Defense departments, need to create protocols so “a price is paid” if U.S. systems are breached, he said.

Sessions reiterated retaliation when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., asked whether he would allow the department and the FBI to continue to investigate Russian interference even if it led to the investigation or prosecution of the president. Sessions said if laws were broken, “the appropriate actions should be taken.”

He also stated multiple times an appropriate response to foreign governments that hack the U.S. is a foreign policy determined by Congress and chief executive, and having “the world know that if you do X to us, you can expect we’re going to do Y to you.”

Lock Her Up?

On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to investigate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server or the Clinton Foundation. Though the president-elect later told The New York Times he wouldn’t pursue such an investigation, Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked the nominee what his role would be.

“The proper thing to do would be to recuse myself,” Sessions testified, stating it would look like a conflict of interest after comments he also made during the campaign.

“This country does not punish its political enemies,” he said.

Whitehouse asked whether Sessions chanted “lock her up” during Clinton’s presidential campaign, to which Sessions replied, “No, I did not—I don’t think.”

Muslim Registry

Sessions said he does not support a registry of Muslims living in the U.S. or surveillance of mosques.

Encryption

Sessions didn’t expand on his opinions on encryption, but he agreed to continue to work with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to ensure law enforcement has access to data on encrypted phones like the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter. Last Congress, Cornyn proposed an amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act that would require service providers to metadata to the FBI without a warrant.

International Data Privacy

Sen. Orrin Hatch asked Sessions whether he would support the International Communications Privacy Act, a bill that would allow law enforcement agencies with a warrant to get U.S. citizen’s electronic communications regardless of where the information is housed. Current law prohibits the law enforcement agencies from accessing data held outside of the U.S.

Sessions said individuals have a right to privacy, but he doesn’t have “firm and fast opinions” about the subject.

Online Poker

Responding to a question from Graham, Sessions said he may revisit the 2011 Justice Department memo on the Wire Act that reversed the department’s long-held stance that it banned online poker and the selling lottery tickets online. Sessions, however, said he couldn’t give an opinion today.

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