People For the American Way sued the FBI and the Department of Justice today after the agencies failed to respond in a timely manner to Right Wing Watch’s Freedom of Information Act request seeking information about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ failure to list meetings with foreign officials on his security clearance form.
Right Wing Watch is a project of People For the American Way, which is being represented in the suit by American Oversight and People For the American Way Foundation.
Sessions has come under scrutiny for his meetings with Russian officials during President Trump’s 2016 campaign, stating in his confirmation hearing that he “did not have communications with the Russians” before saying that he thought the question referred only to campaign meetings and “I don’t recall any discussion of the campaign in any significant way.” The Washington Post later reported that Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. “told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters” with Sessions.
CNN reported in May that Sessions did not disclose meetings he had had with representatives of the Russian government on his official security clearance form, the SF-86 form. A Justice Department spokesman stated at the time: “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.”
In response to an American Oversight FOIA request, the Justice Department released the relevant page of Sessions’ SF-86, which revealed that he had claimed to have had no contact with any foreign governments in the past seven years.
Right Wing Watch wanted to see whether the Justice Department’s account that Sessions had been told not to include Senate business on that part of his SF-86 was correct. So on June 1 we filed a FOIA request seeking information about instructions the FBI gave to Sessions “concerning what contacts with foreign individuals to list on or to omit from his SF-86 or other security clearance form.” After initially declining our request for expedited treatment, the FBI granted our request on July 25. The agency has now passed its 20-day deadline to respond to our expedited request, prompting the lawsuit.
In a press release, People For the American Way president Michael Keegan said that “it is imperative for the American people to know whether the attorney general is speaking accurately about omissions in his security clearance form.” American Oversight’s Austin Evers said that after Sessions denied having contact with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing, “no one should take Jeff Sessions’s word about what the FBI instructed him, especially where those instructions would have directly contradicted the text of the security clearance form itself.”