Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday he is unfamiliar with an FBI report about black extremists that has alarmed some lawmakers. The revelation prompted an uncomfortable exchange for the nation's top prosecutor, whose political career has been dogged by questions about race.
The 12-page FBI intelligence assessment, written in August, describes "black identity extremist" groups the FBI says are increasingly targeting law enforcement after police killings of black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Foreign Policy first reported on the assessment, which drew outrage from some black lawmakers.
Rep. Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, pressed Sessions on the report during an oversight hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, explaining that activists are concerned they'll be unfairly labeled for protesting.
"Do you believe there is a movement of African-Americans that identify themselves as black identity extremists, and what does that movement do?" she asked.
Sessions said he hadn't seen the findings of the report but added: "I'm aware that there are groups that do have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity, and some have transformed themselves even into violent activists."
He struggled to answer when asked the same about white groups.
"It's not coming to me at this moment," he said. Bass pointed to the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazism. Sessions said he didn't know whether the FBI had similar intelligence assessments on those groups. Nor would he say whether the group Black Lives Matter, which often rallies after racially charged encounters with police, is an "extremist group."
"I have not so declared it," he said.
The exchange was significant for Sessions, a Republican former Alabama senator who has faced questions about race throughout decades of public life, including during his confirmation hearings this year. Allegations of racially charged comments cost him a federal judgeship in the 1980s. And while he has described the accusations as hurtful and unfair, civil rights groups remain skeptical about his commitment to their interests. Many of his changes to department policy have been favorable to local law enforcement groups, which are among his strongest allies.
Bass asked what he would do to protect the rights of those who protest police.
"This department will not unlawfully target people," he said.