PITTSBURGH — Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he believes the FBI has an opportunity to win the American people’s confidence back after two years of controversy that began with former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email server right before the 2016 presidential election.
Sessions sat down with the Washington Examiner in the Western District U.S. Attorney Scott Brady’s office overlooking downtown Pittsburgh last week, on the day news broke that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe would be stepping down weeks before he was expected to retire.
Sessions' reaction was measured.
“Well, I have believed it was important to have a fresh start at the FBI, and actually, it was in my letter to the president when I recommended Comey's removal. I used the words, 'fresh start,' and the FBI director is Chris Wray, a very talented, smart, capable leader.
“I think it will give them an opportunity to go straight to the American people and say, ‘we are gonna win your confidence,’ ” he said.
When asked if he was concerned that the FBI had become too politicized, Sessions said the agency needs to be careful.
“Well, I would just say it this way. The Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, we all, we tend to be defensive. At this point in time, I think we need to go the extra mile to make sure that everything we do is not political. Everything we do is based on law and facts. And, whether we like it or not, there's been erosion some in the confidence of the American people at the FBI and Department of Justice,” he said.
“And we need to earn that back, and because the heart and soul of the Department of Justice is very good,” he said.
The McCabe announcement initially caused wild speculation that he was forced out by Trump, only to be followed by reports that Wray implied to his FBI staff in an all-bureau email that an inspector general investigation was at the center of McCabe's departure. Wray reinforced to his staff in the email that he was not being swayed by politics.
Sessions came to Pittsburgh to discuss a new team of federal drug agents, computer experts and analysts called the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team (J-CODE). The group will take on online opioid trafficking and act as a single resource for several agencies to target drugs sold on the darknet worldwide.
Sessions also discussed the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which he ordered last summer. “It has a focus on opioid-related healthcare fraud where I have assigned a dozen prosecutors in hotspot districts like Pittsburgh,” he said.
He pointed to a Pittsburgh area doctor, Andrzej Zielke, who is under indictment here for running a pill mill. Sessions spoke about his role in combating the opioid crisis and discussed the role of the Justice Department on immigration.
Washington Examiner: How many cities do you plan on visiting on the opioid initiatives?
Sessions: Well we are here today. We've traveled to quite a number of cities in Ohio and West Virginia and Virginia, and other places where we're seeing these unprecedented deaths, addiction, that's occurring out there. We've never seen anything like that before. I started in the '80s, and drugs were much worse then. Actually, in the '70s, I was prosecuting as a young assistant U.S. attorney, and I saw the trends get bad, but the drugs were not as pure and powerful as heroin is pure today, to levels we've never seen before, and fentanyl is just a killer drug.
Just the slightest miscalculation and a person's life is gone.
Washington Examiner: We had a police officer in nearby East Liverpool, Ohio, who overdosed just because he had a couple of specs on his pants, and he brushed them off, and he overdosed. Had someone not been near him, he would have died.
Sessions: Right, and they are using all kinds of masks and things when they test the drugs, the chemists do. It's just an exceedingly dangerous substance. Oddly, confirmed here today to me that I've heard repeatedly, is that when the word gets out that people are dying from fentanyl, instead of scaring users away and addicts away, they want more of this powerful drug. It attracts them, instead of repelling them.
People need to know how powerful these addictions are. Really fine people that have so much potential cannot break the habit. Even after expensive treatments, they relapse. We've got to prevent people from getting addicted, and that's what the president said in a meeting we had about opioids recently. He said, "You should not start."
He talked about his brother, his life as an alcoholic, and how he never used drugs himself, or alcohol. And, I think he should talk about that. If you don't start, you won't end up this way, and there's just a lot of cases where people ... families have spent untold dollars to try to save their children, and they can't do it, and lost them.
So, it's a tragic thing.
Washington Examiner: What do you see your task force being able to accomplish, and do you think you have enough funding for it?
Sessions: Well, we're planning to operate with the overall funding that we have, and we're gonna redirect money to put a lot more money into the opioid issue. The president has declared it a national health emergency, and it is indeed. It's the number one cause of death for people 50 years old and younger. This is an amazing number, and so we are going to redirect and give priority to this. We have a number of tactics, strategies, so we're going to ... we believe a significant amount of the addictions start as prescription drug pain medication addictions, and when they can't get enough of the pills, then they go to heroin and the fentanyl.
There's no doubt that's the significant part of the problem. We are hammering, and right here in this district, they are hammering doctors and pain clinics and abuses of prescription drugs. We believe that we prescribe too many of these pain pills. That number needs to continue to drop; it's dropped some already. Maybe doctors themselves are self-policing, and being more aware of the danger. So, we want that to go down.
[Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein has been in China, I've met twice with Chinese delegations on fentanyl. We think so far it seems that China is seriously moving to improve the circumstances in that these analogs of fentanyl and opioids have caused problems for them legally in China, too. They're fixing it like our [Drug Enforcement Agency] has fixed it here, and then they promise to be more aggressive in shutting down this industry.
So, we're hopeful that will make a positive difference. We're working with the Postal Service, they are here and others, to see if we can identify the transshipment of it, and we're gonna start at the bottom and work up as we always have done to find out the sources of the fentanyl. Which isn't unlimited sources, so therefore is an opportunity to make progress.
Washington Examiner: You had success early on with taking down a dark web distributor, Alpha Bay, but they're going to go set up shop somewhere else. How do you track this?
Sessions: That is a good question. This is probably the leading district with sophisticated understanding of the dark web, and how to confront it. And they've taken a lead in a number of matters right now nationwide, in that. But we believe we can identify these dark websites, which are nothing more than marketplaces. They just advertise the illegal products Alpha Bay had, I think, 10,000? Thousands of fentanyl sites, so somebody can order fentanyl. If they can access the site they can order it directly. It would be shipped to them, without ever seeing the person who shipped it. They use bitcoin, but we believe there's some tactics, if properly used, that can make that more difficult for these drug dealers.
Our focus, and the national focus, has got to be on the 64,000 people that died last year from drug overdoses. That includes heroin and fentanyl at the highest numbers, and some of these prescription drugs if you take too many of them.
So, that's what our primary focus is; it is a national health emergency. I believe that our work can impact that. A lot of people think that it's like a rising tide, you know, and prosecutors and police have no ability to impact what's happening out there. I do not agree, I've seen good law enforcement reverse drug abuse trends in the past, and we can do it again, and we are gonna do it again. We are going to reverse these trends.
Washington Examiner: Have you been out in the field?
Washington Examiner: That has to be heartbreaking for you.
Sessions: Oh, it is, and I was in New Hampshire. Fifty mothers spoke to thousands of high school seniors, and they held pictures of their children who had died from a drug overdose.
Washington Examiner: In Philadelphia, they have set up these experimental safe areas where opioid addicts can use a needle surrounded by medical professionals so that they don't overdose. What are your thoughts about that? Can you understand why people become this desperate to provide these safe places for these addicts?
Sessions: Well, as you can certainly understand, people are going to try desperate measures, which I would say this is a pretty desperate measure. Look, to me the first thing we need to do is to redouble dramatically our efforts to keep people from starting on these drugs, because once they get started, it's just tragic how hard it is for people to break an addictive cycle.
We just got to warn people more intensely. [We need to focus on] treatment and what to do after a person is addicted. But what kind of life is it if you have to go to a center multiple times, I guess, a day?
Washington Examiner: So you want to get ahead of that?
Sessions: Yeah, and as the numbers go down, you know, not to go into much detail, but 1981 when I became a United States attorney, over half the high school seniors in America admitted to using an illegal drug. The purity levels were much less, there was no fentanyl, very little heroin, this was cocaine and marijuana, I guess, mostly.
That number dropped by over half. It took over 10 years for it to happen. So, we've gotten lax on our messaging, we're using more and more of these drugs, and more and more people getting addicted. And we've got to return to honest messaging about the dangers. And one of the things in my opinion that makes these messages far more effective today, than maybe two or three years ago, is almost everybody knows somebody who has overdosed or addicted, homeless, lost their families, lost their jobs, lost their college career. So, so many people know that, I think people will not argue with the fact don't get started with these powerful drugs.
Washington Examiner: In Philadelphia, they have proposed creating a new immigration position that ensures illegal immigrants can use the justice system without disproportionate consequences because of their illegal status. What are your thoughts on that?
Sessions: I don't like the phrase, "used the system." The system is designed to appropriately honor laws of the United States, and we have a situation in New York where the district attorney announced that he would charge illegal aliens with less serious crimes than he would charge an American, because if he charged the more serious crimes, they might be deported. When somebody comes to the country illegally, and commits another crime in addition to that, he has to be deported. That's what the law is. It's stunning, totally antithetical to reducing crime in Philadelphia, to try to protect illegal aliens who are criminals, drug dealers often, and not deport them. If you're not willing to deport them, then you believe in open borders.
So, I think it's a big mistake, and I would urge the district attorney to reevaluate that.