After one of the most dramatic weeks in recent Washington history, Senate Democrats upped the ante on Tuesday (November 1). Not content to wait until Thursday’s arraignment of former Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (on charges that he lied about the leaking of a covert CIA agent’s name) to start getting answers on prewar intelligence on Iraq, Democrats stunned Republicans with a surprise political maneuver. Without warning his Republican counterparts, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid effectively shut down the Senate Tuesday afternoon by invoking the rarely used Rule 21, which calls for a secret session of the Senate in order to discuss intelligence issues.
Prior to calling for the closed session — which required all Senate staff, press and other officials not sworn to secrecy to leave the chambers — Reid said in light of the Libby indictment, the American people and soldiers need to know how and why the United States became engaged in the Iraq war (see “Dick Cheney Aide ‘Scooter’ Libby Indicted In CIA Leak Case, Submits Resignation” ). He also said that Senators deserve an answer as to why a second phase of investigation into prewar intelligence has not been completed.
“The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really all about, how this 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. “I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations aren’t being conducted, and in accordance with Rule 21 I now move the Senate go into closed session.”
Shortly thereafter, fellow Democrat Dick Durbin seconded the call, the public was ordered out of the chambers, all 100 Senators were ordered in and the lights were dimmed, according to CNN. The move sparked bitter reaction from Republicans, particularly Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who called the action a “stunt.” It is the first time in more than 25 years that such a closed session has been called for.
Clearly angered by Reid’s actions, Frist said, “Not with the previous Democratic leader or the current Democratic leader have I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution. Every other time there has been at least consideration for the other side of the aisle before a stunt, and this is a pure stunt, by Senator Reid.”
Friday’s action against Libby, who is the first White House staffer in 135 years to be indicted, spurred Democrats to call the session to push for more answers on their questions about whether the administration manipulated intelligence in the run-up to the war.
According to Senator Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the move for the session came because a promised second phase of the investigation into prewar intelligence has not taken place. “Obviously the reason is that one of the five subjects of phase two is very sensitive to the administration, whether public statements by U.S. government officials were substantiated by intelligence information,” Levin said. He added that there was “lots of evidence that the administration went way beyond the intelligence, particularly in how it related to Iraq and al Qaeda.”
In March the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Pat Roberts, said the investigation into whether the administration manipulated prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was over because an earlier panel had found that the intelligence was flawed and there was no need to continue the probe. CNN reported that there is a draft of the plan for the second phase of the investigation and that Democrats are asking why they have not been able to see that document yet and have vowed to keep the Senate closed until they get some answers. A vote of the Senate is required to re-open the Senate.
According to CNN, Frist has asked that three members of each party meet in private to figure out what phase two of the Senate investigation should entail and that they return on November 14 with a plan.