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Frank Pentagon, State briefings muting congressional criticism of Bush's Iraqi war policy

WASHINGTON—Most mornings at 9 these days, up to 30 senators beat a path to a spare, windowless, wood-paneled room on the secure fourth floor of the U.S. Capitol.

Inside this soundproof redoubt, Pentagon and State Department officials share secrets about the progress of the war in Iraq.

The sessions—complete with charts, slides and the occasional model soldier—have surprised senators by their frankness and have helped mute congressional criticism of the president's policy toward Iraq.

"In all candor when you're brought in at the highest levels to discuss some of the tactical and strategic decisions and to ask questions, I think you develop a trust for the policymakers," said Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and one of Bush's early critics on Iraq.

Senators who in the past have joked that secret administration briefings are simply ripped from the morning headlines, say they are pleasantly surprised by the quality of information they receive now.

"This is the first time that I've felt they were very helpful," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Not so much because they give any specific pieces of information, but because they really give you an excellent depiction of the big picture."

Since the start of the Bush presidency, his administration has worked to expand the authority and power of the executive branch and has been more likely to hold back information from Congress rather than share it. The fourth-floor briefings are exceptions; they appear to be serving their purpose. With the administration facing criticism from members of the military establishment about the strategy for war, these briefings have served to co-opt or silence lawmakers who otherwise might be critics.

"If they were fending us off, refusing to answer questions, then frankly the bad news would be magnified," Durbin said.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who got crosswise with the administration for describing Bush's pre-war diplomacy as a "miserable failure," gushes about the briefings. He said that if briefers can't answer a senator's question one day, they return the next day, highlight the query on a screen and provide an answer.

"They're excellent briefings, very detailed," Daschle said.

On Wednesday, senators entered the room to find an Army soldier modeling the equipment they carry into battle. In an earlier session, a soldier modeled the heavy body suits they would wear in case of chemical attack.

"The nitty-gritty of this is sort of important," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. "Each one of us who served in the military—obviously we didn't have equipment like this—so you make comparisons in your own mind how this war is different."

The sessions occur in room S-407, a conference room big enough to accommodate 100 senators, but small enough to make a full Senate briefing a bit snug. There's no fixed furniture inside. The door has a combination lock. A Capitol police officer stands sentry outside.

The first and foremost rule of attendance in room S-407: What's heard there stays there.

World War II vintage posters with a loose-lips-sink-ships theme line the corridor leading to the room, according to people familiar with the surroundings. One depicts a terrified sailor struggling in the water, his arm outstretched as a ship sinks over his shoulder. Bold letters proclaim: "Someone talked!"

The second rule of attendance: No electronic equipment.

During a full secret Senate briefing, the table outside the S-407's door can resemble a telecommunications bazaar—cell phones, blackberries and pagers, all colorfully marked with yellow Post-It notes identifying their owners, all dutifully checked at the door like guns at an Old West saloon.

The room is part of an addition to the U.S. Capitol that Congress authorized in 1959. With the outbreak of the Cold War, senators worried that meetings in less secure rooms would be susceptible to KGB spies or other interlopers. (Some offices had special blinds that blocked eavesdropping by sound-detection equipment)

The highly secretive Joint Atomic Energy Committee met there until its demise in 1977. After that, S-407 became part of the Office of Senate Security, a sanctum sanctorum away from the prying eyes of the press, the public and, yes, the spies.

While it has remained so since, there was one notable breach of protocol during the previous Bush administration.

In recognition of the end of the Cold War, three Soviet KGB agents were permitted in S-407 during a tour of the Capitol.

"I thought it was so ironic," recalled associate Senate historian Don Ritchie, who led the former Soviet spies on their tour that day. "I was outside with the police and the KGB was inside."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.