Attorney General Jeff Sessions faced his old colleagues in the United States Senate Tuesday afternoon, answering questions about his role in the Trump campaign and its connection to attempts by Russian intelligence officers to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The hearing initially looked to be shaping up into a mundane event, with Sessions hedging his answers and (somewhat understandably) not recalling details the senators wanted to know.
There were moments where Sessions allowed his genteel southern façade to crack, showing a rarely seen feisty side, as when Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden pressed him on what former FBI Director James Comey meant when he testified last week that he was aware of reasons not known to the public why Sessions would eventually recuse himself. Sessions’s answer was an angry “why don’t you tell me?”
Much of the questioning related to a conference Sessions attended at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel in April 2016, where then-candidate Donald Trump gave what the Washington Post describes as a “pro-Russia speech” to an audience that included Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Allegedly, Sessions did not list this conference on his SF-86, leading his opponents to label this as another instance of his lack of candor.
Alabama Republican and Army veteran Tom Cotton rebutted this assertion with a bit of comic relief, asking Sessions if he was aware of tradecraft like “covert communications, dead drops, and brush passes,” before asking if Sessions liked spy novels and “Jason Bourne or James Bond movies.” Cotton was pointing out what he called the “fantastical” notion that a sitting U.S. Senator and a Russian Ambassador could have colluded on election interference in the harsh glare of a widely attended public event.
Washington’s Most Popular Question: ‘So, What do you do?’
But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) worked a line of questioning that should sound familiar to anyone who had held a security clearance. Rubio said that foreign intelligence officers don’t always use diplomatic cover, often posing as businessmen or journalists. He asked Sessions if, during the campaign, he’d “ever had an interaction with someone who in hindsight you’d say, ‘they were trying to influence me or gain insight?’”
Sessions said he didn’t believe he had. But for cleared professionals, Rubio’s question was the most relevant of the hearing. It’s natural to want to talk about what you do for a living. And since senators get questions every day, they might not usually think twice about why someone is asking a particular question.
Some people are simply genuinely curious about your work and simply want to know more about you and what you do. But foreign intelligence services are after more, and they’re well trained in the art of concealing their intentions. Few people live a life where their friends and neighbors are completely unaware of their employment, and your access to classified information makes you an attractive target for espionage.
When meeting new people, it is sometimes necessary to ask yourself if you’re being probed. Questions moving beyond the basic and veering into need-to-know territory are an obvious red flag, but there are more subtle clues. One newer tactic is the social media “sock puppet,” a fake account used to gather and spread information. It doesn’t matter how tightly you control the privacy settings on your social media accounts if you accept a “random” friend request from the impossibly attractive woman with whom you have no mutual friends. (Pro tip: she’s not real; she’s a Russian spy).
Obviously, there is a sweet spot between being carefree and living in complete isolation. As much as security managers would prefer if we all never left the SCIF, that’s not an option. But if you can’t answer Rubio’s question to Sessions with a firm “no,” then it’s time to have a conversation with your security manager. Your clearance, and the security of your program, depend on it.