WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate returned to its daily work late Tuesday after Democrats enacted a rare parliamentary rule forcing a private session (search) of the chamber so senators could speak in secret about the lead-up to the war in Iraq.
As a result of the session, in which Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (search) and the panel's Ranking Democrat Jay Rockefeller (search) sparred for 40 minutes about whether Republicans had failed in their oversight of the Bush administration, lawmakers set Nov. 14 as a deadline for six members of the Senate — three from each party — to assess the progress of the committee's investigation into pre-Iraq war intelligence.
"Today the American people are going to see a little bit of light. On Nov. 14, we're going to have a phase-by-phase idea of how they are going to complete this (investigation), finally," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
The committee will also meet from Tuesday through Friday next week to review staff findings.
Democrats say the demand for a closed session 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," 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 at the time 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.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said 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.
Republicans, who were clearly caught off guard by the Democrats' maneuver, called the move to shut down regular debate "gutter" politics. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., said the chamber was "hijacked" by Democrats.
"Once again, it shows the Democrats use scare tactics. They have no conviction. They have no principles. They have no ideas," Frist said. "But this is the ultimate. Since I've been majority leader, I'll have to say, not with the previous Democratic leader or the current Democratic leader have ever I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution."
House Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that Democrats called the session to discuss "phase two" of a committee investigation into whether Bush and the administration misused data to justify war in Iraq.
"The purpose of this closed session in the Senate chamber is to finally give the truth to at least the members of the Senate — to finally call to task the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee," Durbin said.
He added that Roberts told Democrats that he wanted to wait to begin phase two until after the November election last year. Though Wednesday marks a year since those elections, Roberts has done nothing to launch any oversight hearings.
"For a year and a half, we've been waiting for phase two," Durbin said. "You know there comes a point where we'll be in next year, it'll be too close to an election and this will once again just slip through our hands. I think we owe the American people some straight answers. We certainly owe the troops who are risking their lives every day straight answers."
But Roberts said Democrats misconstrued the facts about phase two, which aims to look into pre-war intelligence assessments. He said that plans were well under way to finish the work before Democrats held up Senate actions.
"It seemed to me a little convenient for all of a sudden to go into a closed session of the Senate, and call for a full Senate investigation of phase two when the committee is already doing its work. And I think that basically is an unfortunate stunt," Roberts said on the Senate floor after the closed session.
Work Under Way
Roberts said 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?"
On the Senate floor, Roberts said the second phase of the investigation was also considering the activities of the Policy Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans within the Office of Undersecretary of Defense, formerly run by Douglas Feith who is no longer in the administration. The chairman said he wanted to determine whether that office's findings and information provided by the Iraqi National Congress and its head, Ahmad Chalabi, had undue influence on the administration's decision to go to war.
Roberts conceded that some delays may have been partly due to conflicts between Feith's office and the panel. He said the committee had asked the Defense Department's inspecter general to report back after hairs were raised over possible illegal actions.
But even with that detail on hold, Republican Intelligence Committee staffers told FOX News that more than 250 intelligence analysts were interviewed by staff over the course of the two-part probe. Republican staffers were ready to go with their presentation of public statements made by administration officials in May, but Democrats on the committee objected to Roberts' decision not to attach officials' names to their comments and let the process be anonymous. 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."
The analysts who were interviewed were specifically asked if they felt any political manipulation or pressure in making their pre-war assessments. According to bipartisan committee staff, all said "no." Roberts said he thinks that's good enough, but Democrats have said they want to know if administration officials then took those assessments and used them for political advantage and manipulated them to go to war.
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.
Rare Senate Action
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.
The last time a closed session was forced was 25 years ago, Rockefeller said.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the former majority leader, said closed sessions had been invoked two or three times under his tenure as majority leader, but only after a pre-arranged, negotiated discussion.
"This is not the way it has been done," Lott said. "We would never surprise each other ... It's not to say that there's not important information that we could discuss or would be discussed in secret or closed session, but I'm astounded by this. I don't really know what the tenor of this is, what is the justification for it and why this extreme approach was used."
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."
Durbin 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.
A Distraction From a Distraction
In calling for the closed session, Reid added that the decision was also prompted by the recent indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (search), on five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements in the investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.
"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."
Libby was not indicted for revealing operative Valerie Plame Wilson's (search) name, but for not being forthcoming about where he learned her name and whom he told. The investigation is ongoing, however, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told reporters last week.
Democrats argue that Plame Wilson's identity was revealed as punishment for her husband Joseph Wilson's criticism of the Bush administration. Wilson slammed the administration for including in its case for war intelligence that Wilson was not able to verify about Iraq seeking to purchase uranium from Niger. White House aides later said the information should not have been used in the president's 2003 State of the Union address, although British and Italian intelligence sources stand by the data.
Bond countered that Wilson brought on the revelation about his wife's identity by making the claim that Cheney's office sent him to Africa to verify the intelligence. In fact, the CIA sent Wilson. Plame Wilson was said to have recommended her husband for the trip.
"I would say Joe Wilson has himself to thank for whatever revelations and subsequent publicity and fortune and fame they gathered from the disclosure of her previous role," Bond said.
Fitzgerald's investigation alleges Libby discussed Plame Wilson's role in the trip with reporters weeks before Wilson's criticisms were published in The New York Times.
Before the deal was reached on a Nov. 14 deadline, Durbin said Democrats would stall Senate action for as long as it takes.
"It is within the power of the majority to close down the closed session. They can do it by majority vote to return to the legislative calendar," Durbin said. "We're serving notice on them at this moment: Be prepared for this motion every day until you face the reality. The Senate Intelligence Committee has a responsibility."
FOX News Trish Turner and Gregory Simmons contributed to this report.