When Democrats forced the Senate into a closed-door session early this month to discuss the handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq, it was a striking move -- but hardly unprecedented.
Such secret sessions, in which the media and all but a few aides are shooed from the Senate chamber and its galleries, were common in both the House and Senate in the nation's early history. They have been less frequent since the 19th century but nevertheless are convened periodically to discuss sensitive matters such as impeachment deliberations, confidential messages from the president and national security concerns.
As the Congressional Research Service notes in two recent papers on the subject, the Senate conducted all business behind closed doors until 1794. Its executive sessions, in which nominations and treaties are considered, remained closed until 1929. Since then the Senate has held 54 secret sessions, most for national security reasons but six during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, according to the CRS.
The House regularly met in closed sessions through the end of the War of 1812, for business both confidential and routine. But it has met only four times behind closed doors since a session in 1825 when lawmakers received a confidential message from the president about relations with Indian tribes. The others were for a confidential message on a bill regulating trade with Britain (1830), to discuss the Panama Canal Act of 1979, to discuss the involvement of Cuba and other communist nations in Nicaragua (1980), and to discuss U.S. support for paramilitary operations in Nicaragua (1983).
The authority to hold secret sessions stems from Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, which reads, in part: "Each House shall keep a journal of its proceedings and from time to time publish the same, excepting such parts as may in their judgment require secrecy."
Lawmakers and staffers who attend the sessions are prohibited from revealing the information discussed in them. Members can be fined, censured or expelled from office, and employees can be fired or disciplined for violating secrecy rules.
Transcripts of secret sessions are published in the Congressional Record only if the relevant house votes to make them public.
In the House, transcripts that are not released are sent to the relevant committee. If the committee decides not to release it, the transcript is sent to the National Archives. The transcript can be made public after 30 years unless the clerk of the House blocks its release because it would harm the public interest or intrude on the rights of the House.
If the Senate does not vote to release a transcript, it is sent to the Office of Senate Security and ultimately the National Archives, where it remains sealed until the Senate votes to lift the secrecy requirement.