Democrats Force Senate Into Closed Session Over Iraq Data

Published: November 1, 2005

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 - Democrats invoked a rarely used rule today that sent the Senate into a two-hour closed session, infuriating Republicans but producing an agreement for a bipartisan look at whether the Republican leadership was dragging its feet on a promised inquiry into the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence on Iraq.

The Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, caught Republicans by surprise when, with only minutes' warning, he invoked Rule 21 - a move that Republicans said had not been taken in more than 20 years.

After the session, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, emerged to announce that he and Mr. Reid would each appoint three senators to investigate the Senate Intelligence Committee's schedule for completing its investigation. The panel is to report back by Nov. 14. It was not immediately clear what use would be made of the report.

Senator Reid said that while the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, had promised a thorough inquiry into prewar intelligence, including the way the White House had used or misused it, he had not followed through.

"I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations aren't being conducted," Senator Reid said from the Senate floor before the session, "and in accordance with Rule 21, I now move that the Senate go into closed session."

Senator Frist appeared furious over the maneuver, which took place against a backdrop of rising political acrimony here.

"The resort to this, this, this stunt - this political stunt - this scare tactic, is really deeply disappointing," he told reporters . But "if they want to get in the gutter, I guess that's what they'll do."

The closed session meant that only senators were to be allowed in Senate chambers. Television coverage was blacked out, and journalists, staff members, aides, visitors and others were excluded. Senators were not allowed even to carry cell phones or personal-data devices into the chamber.

After the floor was reopened, a clearly angry Senator Roberts insisted his committee had not dallied on the second part of its inquiry - the part dealing with administration use of intelligence. "We will look into Phase 2 and see what we can do and finish that product," he said. "I said a long time ago we would let the chips fall where they may."

He grumbled that the closed session "was not needed, not necessary."

But the committee's vice chairman, Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, took pointed exception to that. "It is clear that only token work, at best, has been done on Phase 2 since it was authorized," he said. "That's unacceptable."

Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, said that the special session was needed to press Senator Roberts and the Republican leadership about the investigation. "This is very serious," he told reporters outside the Senate's closed doors. "It's about how our government and our country ought to work."

Mr. Schumer said that Republicans had it in their hands to end the extraordinary session quickly: "If we get an agreement with proceeding on the investigation, there won't have to be any closed sessions."

The strains between the parties have become uncommonly raw.

The latest came on Monday with President Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. Some Democrats, describing him as a man of extreme conservative views, have hinted at the possibility of a filibuster to block the nomination; Republicans, equally strong in support of Judge Alito, say they could invoke a rare parliamentary maneuver to force the nomination through.

Partisan tensions were also aggravated late last week with the announcement that Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis Libby Jr., had been indicted in connection with the investigation into the leaking of the identity of a C.I.A. officer whose husband, a former ambassador, had challenged the Bush administration on some of its prewar intelligence assertions about Iraq.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and a member of the intelligence committee, told reporters that Rule 21 had been invoked because the Senate Intelligence Committee had never completed the phase of its inquiry into whether administration officials had manipulated or exaggerated intelligence in an effort to mislead the country on the need to go to war in Iraq in March 2003.

"There's nothing but foot-dragging relative to the investigation," Mr. Levin said. "There's a lot of evidence that the administration went way beyond the intelligence that was provided to them."

In July 2004, the Senate committee issued a scathing report about intelligence on Iraq, saying that prewar assertions that Baghdad possessed chemical and biological weapons were made without information to back them. It was the failure to carry out the promised follow-up inquiries to this report, Democrats said, that prompted today's action.

Republicans suggested that the Democrats' motives were political - aimed partly at keeping attention on Mr. Libby's troubles and the continued investigation of President Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, who has been implicated in the case.

"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 and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions," Senator Reid said.

To some Democrats, the unmasking of the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame Wilson, was part of an administration effort to undercut Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, for his having asserted that the White House had "twisted" prewar intelligence.

Senator Frist ended the impromptu news conference by turning to stride back onto the closed Senate floor, saying, "I've got to go figure out what we're going to do."

The closed session lasted a little over two hours, but, at least to Republican sensibilities, it violated Senate traditions of courtesy and consent, and the high emotions it engendered appeared unlikely to soon be forgotten.

Never before, said Mr. Frist, "have ever I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution."