Secret WMD Session?

Posted February 3, 2004 at 6:55pm

Frustrated by a lack of cooperation from the White House concerning pre-Iraq war intelligence data, Democratic Senators are considering forcing the chamber into a closed-door executive session that would allow for an unfettered debate on how Congress should proceed with an investigation into intelligence lapses.

Closing the Senate for a rare Members-only session would be viewed as a bold move by Democrats during a presidential election year in which national security ranks alongside the state of the economy as the top two issues of concern for voters.

“I think it should happen,” said Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “My feeling is I think it would be very good to have a closed meeting on the intelligence operation of this country. It would be good for the body.”

Discussions about triggering an executive session began last week before word leaked out that President Bush would back the creation of an independent commission to investigate U.S. intelligence claims that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Bush is expected to unveil details of the commission during a speech this afternoon.

So far, coalition forces have not found stockpiles of these weapons in Iraq despite months of intense searching and the pre-war intelligence estimates on the matter are now suspect. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay was the latest person to express doubt about the intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.

Kay’s testimony, in part, prompted Senate Democrats to consider using their privilege to call for an executive session to exert pressure on the White House to be more forthcoming about giving them information regarding the alleged intelligence lapses.

Democrats complain that the White House refuses to turn over important information and key facts they say are needed to determine how the intelligence community came to what appears to be a false conclusion. Some Democrats now say that the administration’s claims of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program persuaded them to vote to allow Bush to wage war against Iraq.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he supports the Senate entering an executive session to discuss the matter and added that he thinks several administration officials such as CIA Director George Tenet, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell all should be compelled to answer Congress’ questions in front of the appropriate committees.

“We are faced with the reality of governing and we need to understand the status of our intelligence efforts in light of this colossal failure before the invasion of Iraq,” said Durbin, a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Another Democratic Senator said calling for the Senate to meet behind closed doors would “create drama and tension,” two important ingredients that might pressure the Bush administration to be more accommodating of Democrats’ requests for information.

“We created the intelligence community and we fund it,” said the Senator, who requested anonymity. “There is an urgency. It is urgent to figure out what to do and do it soon.”

There is no timetable as to when Democrats would invoke this privilege, which has been traditionally used to discuss matters of national security. For example, the Senate met in executive session in April 1997 to discuss a treaty banning chemical weapons. Senators also met behind closed doors in 1999 when it considered the two articles of impeachment lodged against then-President Bill Clinton.

When an executive session is triggered, all nonessential personnel must leave the floor, with only a handful of key Senate aides allowed to attend. The galleries are cleared of the public and media and the television cameras that broadcast the Senate’s floor debate are shut off. All those present on the floor are “sworn to secrecy” and can be punished with either expulsion or contempt charges, according to Senate rules.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) questioned why Democrats would consider such a move considering that the Intelligence panel is set to show a draft report to committee members on its own investigation into the matter.

“We are getting a report Thursday and that is one way in which we are beginning to deal with this question,” she said.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) was more direct in his criticism, charging that Democrats are trying to politicize the issue. “This is nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or intelligence,” he said. “Everybody wants to get to the bottom of what is going on there, and the bottom line is they want to play politics with this issue.

“They know it is having an impact on them and they are proceeding accordingly,” he added.

In anticipation of Bush’s announcement today, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called on the president to allow Congress to appoint members to the independent commission that will review the intelligence lapses.

“I strongly believe Congress can — and should — establish a truly independent commission to examine the collection, analysis, dissemination and use by policy makers of intelligence on Iraq,” Daschle said in speech delivered on the Senate floor Tuesday.