WASHINGTON – With details emerging about the progress of a probe into pre-Iraq war intelligence, Republicans were still stewing Wednesday by what they call a Democratic stunt to force a rare closed Senate session.
"This was a political stunt to get headlines today to bring people out to talk about it," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told FOX News. "They really ceded the high ground when it comes to Senate rules or the civility of the Senate floor."
Democrats claim that the Republican leadership had been dragging its feet on completing the so-called phase two of the Senate Intelligence Committee (search) investigation into pre-war intelligence, which the panel began working on in February 2004. They argued they had no choice but to bring a halt to Senate operations to highlight the probe's progress.
But Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (search) says he told Democrats on Monday that Republicans were ready to wrap up the most difficult part of the probe — looking at statements made by public officials about Iraq and seeing if they were justified by the available intelligence at the time.
"What has not been told by the Democrats, when they had the leadership meeting and went on this attack mode, is that we started this phase two investigation in February ... had a May 17 (2005) business meeting, they balked, and then there were several other provisions where we've had problems," Roberts told FOX News Wednesday.
Roberts said work has continued, and earlier this week his staff spoke with Democrat staffers to say they were going to wrap up work on the matter next week. "Next thing I know, we're getting blamed for dragging our feet. That is simply not the case."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, sharply disputed Roberts' recollection in a statement Wednesday.
"I have reviewed the official transcript from the May 17 meeting, and I regret that the chairman’s memory is not accurate. There was no disagreement about how to proceed and the Democrats repeatedly urged the chairman to move forward ... . In the essence of truth, I strongly urge the chairman to release the 37-page transcript of the May 17 meeting which contains no classified information," said Rockefeller, of West Virginia.
"If we cannot produce a thorough and credible report in the coming weeks, then we still will have failed the American people," he added.
Roberts also attacked the Democrat argument that this is connected to the investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's identity, which resulted last week in the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
"This is a concerted effort following the Scooter Libby indictment trying to put a noose around the president's neck, and say that he lied to the American people," Roberts said, adding that his committee's weapons of mass destruction report demonstrated that none of the intelligence analysts said they felt any political pressure.
The result of Tuesday's closed session was a deadline of Nov. 14 for six members of the Senate — three from each party — to assess the progress of the committee's investigation into pre-Iraq war intelligence.
The committee will also meet from Tuesday through Friday next week to review staff findings. Roberts said hoped to make the phase two report public when it was complete.
"What's going to be carried out in closing this phase two of the investigation had already been discussed by the Intelligence Committee with the timeline already set out for hearings next week and that's why they took this surprise tactic to shut down the place to get the headlines, which they were able to do," Frist said.
Democrats say the demand for a closed session on Tuesday was prompted by "misinformation and disinformation" given by President Bush (search) and his administration prior to entry into the war in Iraq and a failure of Republicans to look into it.
"If the administration had all the information that they have now back then, they wouldn't even have brought it to the Congress for a vote," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said of the Senate's 2002 consent to launch a war against Iraq.
"We know that there were no [weapons of mass destruction] now in Iraq. We didn't know it at the time. We know now that we didn't know then that there was no Al Qaeda connection. We know now that we didn't know then that there was no 9/11 connection. We know now that they had no plan for winning the peace. We didn't know that at the time," Reid, D-Nev., told reporters after the closed session ended.
In calling for the closed session, Reid added that the decision was also prompted by the recent indictment of Libby.
"The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really about: How the administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions," Reid said on the Senate floor. "As a result of its improper conduct, a cloud now hangs over this administration."
Rockefeller said Tuesday that the parliamentary maneuver was invoked after Democrats were repeatedly promised by Roberts, R-Kan., that oversight would be conducted on the war, but nothing came to pass.
Rockefeller suggested that regular delays may have been the result of pressure from the White House.
"Any time the Intelligence Committee pursued a line of inquiry that brought us closer to the role of the White House in all of this, in the use of intelligence prior to the war, our efforts have been thwarted time and time again," Rockefeller said.
But on Wednesday, the battle for ideas continued, with Senate Republicans saying continuing to call the Democrats' action nothing more than political theater. Others said the theater produced a political masterpiece.
"I think it was sort of a low moment of the Senate," said Sen. Lindsay Graham (search), R-S.C. told FOX News.
"Really, I think it was not a good thing to do. ... I think we'd have been a lot better off if Democratic Leader Reid had just walked down the hall to Senator Frist's office and said he had a concern instead of going through that shenanigan yesterday," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (search), R-Ala.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan added that if Democrats want to look at intelligence prior to the war in Iraq, they might want to start by looking at intelligence gathered in the previous administration.
"If Democrats want to talk about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed and the intelligence, they might want to start with looking at the previous administration and their own statements that they've made," Scott McClellan said. The Clinton administration and fellow Democrats "used the intelligence to come to the same conclusion that Saddam Hussein and his regime were a threat."
But on Wednesday, Democratic leaders renewed their criticism of the administration. In a letter to Bush, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi connected Tuesday's maneuvering with a call for a house-cleaning related to the CIA leak investigation, and specifically, the firing of top aide Karl Rove.
"We believe that you should honor your promise to the American people and fire all of those who treated the officer's identity with such reckless disregard for the consequences. It is totally unacceptable that anyone involved in the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of a CIA officer, including your Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, should remain employed at the White House with a security clearance," they wrote.
Some external observers said the Democratic move created the effect the minority party hoped to achieve.
Calling it "bare knuckles" politics, former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (search), R-N.Y. told FOX News that Democrats came out looking better than those who cried foul.
"I think the Democrats took advantage of an opportunity given the [Scooter] Libby indictment to refocus attention, and probably it's going to be more than icy for at least the next two to three months. It'll turn around eventually but there's some hard feelings. ... Democrats scored a coup," D'Amato said.
Former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, a FOX News contributor, said that rather than being a political stunt, as Republicans called it Tuesday, it was the right thing to move an apparently stalled investigation into pre-war intelligence.
"I think they did the exact right thing which is the only way they could push the investigation moving along and I'm glad they did it," Ferraro said.
Work Under Way
Although GOP tempers are still flaring, Roberts explained that months of work led up to this week's confusion.
Phase one oversight involved the Intelligence Committee's probe into the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate issued prior to the lead-up to the Iraq war. The 511-page report that resulted from the phase one investigation was presented to the Sept. 11 commission convened to review the quality of U.S. intelligence prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It issued its report in July 2004.
Roberts said phase two of the investigation grew as a result of the phase one work. The second part of the probe began on Feb. 12, 2004. Roberts said the primary purpose of the current investigation is into whether flawed intelligence supported the lead up to the war.
"In other words, the public statements made in the administration and the public statements made by public officials, whether they be in the Congress, whether they be in the administration ... were those public statements really backed up by intelligence, or were they backed up by flawed intelligence?" he said Tuesday.
Republican Intelligence Committee staffers told FOX News that to compare the intelligence gathered from phase one to the statements made by officials in the lead-up to the war, they collected more than 250 comments by Republican officials. Then they took statements from 100 Democratic officials and took the names off of all the comments.
Republican staffers said they were then ready to present the statements to Democrats in May 2005, but the minority members on the committee objected to the anonymous nature of the comments. That backed up the discussion, the committee's GOP staff director said.
Roberts said he wanted to present a truly impartial look at statements that were made and what intelligence was available to those officials at the time they made their assessments. The chairman said from what they know now, there is no "there there."
But Democrats insist that they want to look at Republican administration statements to see if the intelligence assessments were used for political advantage and manipulated to justify war.
Rare Senate Action
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., a member of the Intelligence Committee, and other Republicans said if Democrats had wanted to take issue with Roberts about any delays in the probe, they could have just asked him.
"Sen. Reid made a number of charges about Sen. Roberts without giving him or me a chance to respond, and then went into closed session. ... It goes a long way to show the level to which politics is dominating procedure here," Bond said.
"If Sen. Reid had come to me and said, 'This is a problem,' which he never did, I would have said, 'Let's talk about it.' I would have said, 'Let's bring in the Intelligence Committee or the leaders, and let's talk about it in a civil, a dignified, a respectful way,'" Frist said.
A closed session is called when any senator demands one and a second motion is made. No vote is taken on whether to close the session — it's a privilege of the senators. During a closed session, cameras are not allowed in the chamber, the public is removed and a security sweep is performed.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Democrats chose to force a closed session because of the classified nature of the material to be discussed.
"We can't say certain things in public. You can say them in a closed chamber, and that's the reason for it," he said.
But Frist Chief of Staff Eric Ueland told FOX News that no security sweep was performed in the chamber before the session because Democrats weren't going to bring up any classified information.
"They don't have any classified information to bring up. They are just trying to change the subject," he said. Ueland added that contrary to Democratic assertions, Frist's staff was not informed of Reid's plan to demand a closed session. He said only Senate floor staffers were informed. While they fall under the direction of the majority leader's office, they are not technically Frist's staffers.
One senior GOP leadership aide suggested that Democrats took this extraordinary action to divert attention back to the CIA leak after Bush had successfully removed the topic from the headlines with his nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The aide said Reid's maneuver distracts from Alito because Democrats don't have the votes to oppose the nominee.
"[Reid] is trying to distract from his inability to block the nomination by trying to concoct some conspiracy over intelligence and abusing the Senate rules in the process," the aide said. "He's just trying to stir up some dust."
FOX News Trish Turner, Sharon Kehnemui Liss and Gregory Simmons contributed to this report.