Democrats forced the Senate into a rare closed-door session yesterday, infuriating Republicans but extracting from them a promise to speed up an inquiry into the Bush administration's handling of intelligence about Iraq's weapons in the run-up to the war.
With no warning in the mid-afternoon, the Senate's top Democrat invoked the little-used Rule 21, which forced aides to turn off the chamber's cameras and close its massive doors after evicting all visitors, reporters and most staffers. Plans to bring in electronic-bug-sniffing dogs were dropped when it became clear that senators would trade barbs but discuss no classified information.
Republicans condemned the Democrats' maneuver, which marked the first time in more than 25 years that one party had insisted on a closed session without consulting the other party. But within two hours, Republicans appointed a bipartisan panel to report on the progress of a Senate intelligence committee report on prewar intelligence, which Democrats say has been delayed for nearly a year.
"Finally, after months and months and months of begging, cajoling, writing letters, we're finally going to be able to have phase two of the investigation regarding how the intelligence was used to lead us into the intractable war in Iraq," Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters, claiming a rare victory for Democrats in the GOP-controlled Congress.
Beneath the political pyrotechnics was an issue that has infuriated liberals but flummoxed many of the Democratic lawmakers who voted three years ago to approve the war: allegations that administration officials exaggerated Iraq's weapons capabilities and terrorism ties and then resisted inquiries into the intelligence failures. Friday's indictment of top White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on perjury and obstruction charges gave Democrats a new opening to demand that more light be shed on these issues, including administration efforts to discredit a key critic of the prewar claims of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Democrats were dismayed that President Bush made no apologies after the indictment and that his naming of a new Supreme Court nominee Monday knocked the Libby story off many front pages. As he stood on the Senate floor to demand the closed session -- a motion not subject to a vote under the rule -- Reid said Libby's grand jury indictment "asserts this administration engaged in actions that both harmed our national security and are morally repugnant."
The usually unflappable majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), was searching for words to express his outrage to reporters a few minutes later. The Senate "has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership," he said. "They have no convictions, they have no principles, they have no ideas." Never before had he been "slapped in the face with such an affront," he said, adding: "For the next year and a half, I can't trust Senator Reid."
Frist seemed much calmer when the closed session ended. He agreed to a six-senator bipartisan task force that will report by Nov. 14 on "the intelligence committee's progress of the phase two review of the prewar intelligence and its schedule for completion."
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said the report was nearing completion anyway, but Democrats disputed that. Committee Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) began inquiring about the evidence against Iraq one week before U.S. troops invaded in March 2003. His interest was sparked by revelations that the Bush administration gave forged documents to U.N. weapons inspectors to support allegations that Iraq had sought to buy a key ingredient for nuclear weapons from the West African nation of Niger.
Roberts resisted a full investigation for three months. But in June 2003, when it became increasingly apparent that no weapons of mass destruction were being found in Iraq, the committee agreed to look into the intelligence cited in the administration's case for war. In February 2004, senators agreed to a second phase that would investigate the Bush administration's use of intelligence and examine public statements made by key policymakers about the threat posed by Iraq.
In July 2004, the committee issued the first phase of its bipartisan report, which found the U.S. intelligence community had assembled a deeply flawed and exaggerated assessment of Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities. The second phase was to focus on the administration's deliberations over the intelligence or how it was used. Sources familiar with the committee's work said there has been little examination of these topics to date.
The Defense Department's Office of Special Plans stopped cooperating with the Senate panel in July of this year. Roberts said key officials hired lawyers and stopped talking when Rockefeller suggested laws may have been broken. But Democrats dismissed that as an excuse.
Authority to hold secret Senate sessions is provided in Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution, and the Continental Congress met behind closed doors. But the practice has ebbed in recent years. The most recent closed Senate session was in February 1999 to deliberate President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, according to the Congressional Research Service, and that was done through a bipartisan agreement.
Reid said he was forced to seek the closed session to spur action on the investigation. "The only way we've been able to get their attention is to spend 31/2 hours in a closed session," he said. "It's a slap in the face to the American people that this investigation has been stymied."
Rockefeller said Democratic requests for information related to the investigation are routinely denied or ignored, and he suggested that the Senate Republican leadership was under orders from the Bush administration not to cooperate.
"Any time the intelligence committee pursued a line of inquiry that brought us close to the role of the White House in all of this in the use of intelligence prior to the war, our efforts have been thwarted time and time again," Rockefeller said. "The very independence of the United States Congress as a separate and coequal branch of the government has been called into question."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.