Closed WMD Session Delayed

Posted March 1, 2004 at 6:41pm

A secret Senate floor debate to discuss alleged pre-Iraq war intelligence lapses is not likely to occur until next month in order to allow the Intelligence Committee to finalize a report detailing its own 10-month investigation into the matter.

The Intelligence panel has recently held several private sessions for committee members to view a draft of the report, which is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.

Once the report is finished, the executive session of the full Senate would be scheduled, a spokesman for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Monday.

“The leader has made it clear that we should allow the Intelligence Committee to complete its review before we move forward,” said Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson. “We should have the benefit of that review before we go forward with an executive session.”

Democrats, though, are anxious to hold the secret session as soon as possible to discuss what they describe as an important national security issue.

“I think it should be during this work period,” Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said in an interview last week. The Senate is scheduled to begin a recess period beginning March 15 and will not reconvene until March 22.

“I think it is important for us to have a better understanding of our current circumstances involved in intelligence,” Daschle said. “I don’t know if there is any way to do that other than a closed session where we can talk about it in a open way.”

“Despite what the majority says, Democrats reserved the right to move to an executive session if we feel that Republicans are dragging their feet on this,” a senior Democratic aide added.

Still, Republicans said the Intelligence Committee report is not finished and could include information gleaned from CIA Director George Tenet, who is scheduled to appear Thursday before the committee in a private hearing.

The report then needs to be reviewed in order to scrub classified information before it is released to the public.

“We are shooting for the end of this month, but it is a process,” hedged a spokesman for the committee.

Democrats have talked about triggering an executive session since late January, an idea Frist signed on to in the middle of last month despite accusations by some Republicans that Democrats were trying to politicize the intelligence matter in anticipation of the November elections.

“It sounds like a political routine to me,” Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) said last week. “I don’t have any particular objections to it, but I can’t see where it is going to gain us anything either.”

While Republicans have agreed to the closed-door debate, GOP leaders will resist any calls for administration officials to appear on the Senate floor to take questions during this rare session.

Democrats had quietly been floating this as a possibility, but Stevenson described such a scenario as a “non-starter.”

“It is the leader’s intent to go forward, but the Senate floor is for debate among Senators,” Stevenson said.

Instead, the Senate debate is expected to focus on the intelligence claims that Iraq was building a weapons of mass destruction program, as well as how to proceed with the inquiry into these alleged intelligence lapses. So far, coalition forces have failed to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction since Saddam Hussein was driven from power.

A Democratic aide pointed out that the report by the Intelligence Committee will not focus on the administration’s role in promoting the alleged flawed intelligence, except to investigate if intelligence analysts were pressured to sign off on information to support the White House’s policy position toward Iraq.

“The first report is important but it doesn’t answer the question of whether the administration exaggerated the intelligence that was used to make the case for going to war,” said the aide.

Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the ranking member on the panel, agreed last month to expand the scope of their investigation into what information the White House had about the alleged flawed intelligence. The spokesman for the Intelligence Committee noted the panel is “just beginning” this facet of the investigation and offered no timeline as to when this information would be released.

Privately, Democrats acknowledge it is their goal to try to find out if the administration knowingly advanced the weapons of mass destruction claim to support the Iraq war.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Intelligence panel, said he understands the issue is going to be politicized but he supports the premise of holding the private debate.

“I think it is good for the Senate to gather in executive session just with Senators,” said Hagel. “These are important issues that we are facing in the world today. I think it enhances the Senate. I think it revitalizes the Senate, and I think it is appropriate with our responsibilities.”

Executive sessions are a rare phenomenon in the Senate and occur when issues of national security need to be discussed. When a closed-door session takes place, the public and press galleries are cleared and all nonessential floor and leadership staffers are instructed to leave the Senate floor. In addition, all audio and television feed of the proceedings are turned off.

Senators met behind closed doors in April 1997 to debate a treaty banning chemical weapons. The chamber also went into executive session in 1999 to debate the two articles of impeachment lodged against then-President Bill Clinton.