Senators Seek Declassification

Move Challenges President

Posted July 30, 2003 at 6:43pm

Momentum is building in the Senate to declassify some 28 pages of a Congressional report examining the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — a direct rebuke of President Bush’s wishes to keep this chapter from public eyes.

While Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hustled Wednesday to obtain signatures from Senators supporting declassification, the Senate Intelligence Committee discussed the mechanics of making public this information at a private afternoon meeting should it decide to move forward with the request.

Within the 28 classified pages reportedly is evidence that U.S. ally Saudi Arabia helped fund the attacks by directing millions of dollars to groups that backed the terrorists. Earlier this month, nearly 900 pages of the report were released, revealing a series of U.S. intelligence bungles and lapses. The report is the product of a yearlong Congressional investigation that was launched in February 2002 after the terrorist attacks.

Efforts to declassify the report could lead to a very public battle that transcends party lines and could reveal a fissure on the Intelligence Committee about Congress’ role in handling secret information.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) both favor making parts of the report public, but Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he strongly disagreed with further declassification. All three lawmakers sit on the panel.

“The very idea that we can just summarily as the legislative branch vote to declassify and make public 28 pages is ridiculous,” said Lott, who noted he would “absolutely” do what he could to prevent it from happening.

“In this area we don’t know what we are doing,” he said. “We barely know more than what the CIA does, but I have more confidence with the CIA when it comes to classified material than I do Congressional staffs or Senators. We have different motives.”

But Snowe said she “believes we can declassify as much as possible without jeopardizing the ongoing investigation.

“My belief is hopefully we will be able to work with members of the committee in order to accomplish that,” she said.

Durbin said he had signed the Brownback-Schumer letter. Despite a request from Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to declassify the 28 pages, Bush said he opposed such a move.

The Intelligence Committee came to no conclusion Wednesday on whether to declassify the remaining part of the report, though both sides agreed the issue needs more investigation.

“We need more information from the FBI as to what is crucial and what is not crucial” in the report, said Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the panel, said the report is “not an easy thing to declassify.”

“Everything has implications and we have to know more before we make a decision on that,” he said.

Given the intricate steps that need to be taken and the fact the Senate is preparing to leave for a month-long August recess, the very earliest these pages could be made public is September.

One of the most vocal members for declassification is Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was chairman of the Intelligence panel when the investigation took place.

Graham urged Roberts and Rockefeller to begin the special Congressional declassfication process during phone calls Tuesday.

“I am not going to ask for all the 28 pages to be released because there are some portions in there that are legitimate national security [issues] and they relate to sensitive international relations or sources of methods or ongoing investigations,” Graham, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said in an interview.

“[Sen.] Dick Shelby [R-Ala.] has reviewed the report and he thinks that 5 percent of the 28 pages would fall into that category. I would tend to agree that is about the proportion.”

Graham and others seeking declassification received strong encouragement from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who said he supported their calls for making the information public.

Shelby, a former chairman of the Intelligence Committee who served alongside Graham as the ranking member of the committee when the joint Senate-House investigation took place, said he had no plans to formally request declassification.

“I told him that I thought the chairman and the ranking [member] — they ought to initiate this, at least sign off,” Shelby said.

“Unless Roberts signs onto it at this point or does his own I am going to hang back,” he said.

Still, Shelby said that he thinks most of the 28 pages should be declassified on the grounds that “it would be in the interests of the American people to know what is in those pages.”

“I don’t believe it is embarrassing to the president,” said Shelby, who has viewed the report. “It would embarrass some foreign relations with some governments, but that would be up to the American people to decide.”

“I think the American people ought to have a clearer understanding of what kind of relationship we have with Saudi Arabia,” Shelby added.

Still, Brownback acknowledged it might be an uphill battle to convince his colleagues to sign onto his letter, but said he “still favors disclosure.

“It is going to take more time because of the president’s strong position on it,” Brownback said. “People are really going to have to think about it.”

It is a procedure that Congress has never before tested. And it is a power that was born in a different era, when Congress unabashedly asserted that the legislative branch, not the executive branch, would decide whether the secrets of the nation should be made public.

The multiple steps of the procedure for Congressional declassification are laid out in the 1977 Senate resolution that empowered the oversight functions of the intelligence panel.

Section 8 of that resolution states that “the select committee may, subject to the revisions of this section, disclose publicly any information in the possession of such committee after a determination by such committee that the public interest would be served by such disclosure.”

But the process must be initiated by one of the 15 members on the Intelligence Committee. If a member of the panel requests the disclosure of classified information, a clock begins to tick. The committee has five business days to meet and vote on the request. If a majority of the committee votes to release the material, notice is sent to the president, who then has five days to personally register an objection.

According to the rules, “the president, personally in writing, notifies the committee that he objects to the disclosure of such information, provides his reasons therefore, and certifies that the threat to national interest of the United States posed by such disclosure is of such gravity that it outweighs any public interest in the disclosure.”

If the president doesn’t object within the five-day period, then the committee may release the information. But a presidential objection automatically sends the question back to the Intelligence Committee, which would hold a second vote on releasing the information by deciding whether to send the matter to the full Senate. If the committee affirms its vote, the chairman must report the resolution to the full chamber by the next day.

The clock continues to tick, though, without the procedural delays that slow other Senate business. One hour after the Senate convenes on the fourth day after the resolution is referred, the Senate “shall go into closed session and the matter shall be the pending business.”

The Senate may remain behind closed doors for five more days to consider the question. But at the end of that period, the Senate would return to open session and immediately vote on the question without any public debate.

Of course, a compromise with the White House may be negotiated at any point in this process, a prospect that some observers predict will be the likely outcome if the Senate initiates the declassification procedure.