Democrats surprised Republicans by forcing the Senate into closed session yesterday to raise the profile of prewar intelligence failures related to Iraq and last week’s indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
“The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really all about, how this administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said, moments before he and his top lieutenant forced the closed session.
The Senate chamber was emptied of staff, reporters and visitors; a security check was made; the doors were locked; and armed guards from the U.S. Capitol Police took up station outside.
When the doors opened two hours later, Democrats said they got what they wanted because Republicans agreed to hold intelligence committee meetings and finish a report on prewar intelligence. Republicans said they didn’t give up anything because the plan to hold a meeting next week had been made before the session. By yesterday evening, the Senate was back debating budget cuts.
“If that’s not politics, I’m not standing here,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The Kansas Republican said Democrats on the committee tipped their hand last year when a staff memo surfaced that they intended to exhaust the bipartisan process and then “pull the trigger” to demand an independent investigation sometime this year.
At issue is what the committee calls “Phase II” of its study of prewar intelligence, which began in February 2004.
Phase I examined the accuracy of prewar intelligence, and the committee released a report last year detailing those failures.
Phase II is a look at how that intelligence was used and whether the data accurately predicted the postwar situation. In particular, the committee is looking at statements from administration officials and members of Congress, and trying to determine whether there was any intelligence — even if it was faulty — that backed what they were saying.
Democrats said Mr. Roberts was balking at completing Phase II, citing as evidence his statement earlier this year that Phase II was “on the back burner.”
Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and Mr. Reid’s top lieutenant, said Democrats chose to make a stand yesterday because today marks a year since the 2004 election and because Mr. Roberts had promised to work on Phase II after the election.
During the closed session, both sides agreed to have six senators — three from each party — report back to leaders by Nov. 14 on progress in the intelligence investigation.
The Democrats’ move won praise from liberal interest groups and bloggers such as David Sirota, a Democratic strategist.
“Give-‘Em-Hell Harry Reid today did a great service to America today by standing up, shutting down the Senate and demanding answers about how and why the Bush administration lied to America,” Mr. Sirota wrote.
But Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said the episode was about settling a political score. “This is pre-2004 election politics that for some reason they can’t move on,” he said.
Republicans said the move broke all decorum because the Democrats had not warned them about it.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said Democrats “hijacked” the Senate and showed great discourtesy. “It means from now on, for the next year and a half, I can’t trust Senator Reid, and that’s hard,” he said.
It was the first such session since 1999, when the Senate met for six days in closed session to review the impeachment case against President Clinton.
Closed sessions can be called by a motion from a single member, seconded by another member, and do not require a vote. But Republicans said such sessions previously have been called by bipartisan agreement.