WASHINGTON—Democrats forced the Senate into a rare secret session Tuesday to demand that the Republican majority further investigate the Bush administration's handling of intelligence related to the war in Iraq.
The surprise maneuver, exploiting last week's indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff in the CIA leak case, caught Republicans flatfooted and shifted attention back to the increasingly unpopular war and away from President Bush's day-old Supreme Court nomination.
After a testy showdown that lasted more than two hours behind closed doors, Senate Republicans agreed to restart an inquiry into the administration's use of intelligence.
Still, furious Republicans called the move a "stunt" and a "scare tactic" designed to score partisan political points.
At issue was a long-standing promise by intelligence committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to broaden the panel's investigation into how intelligence was used to go to war. The committee concluded last year that the intelligence was erroneous, but Democrats wanted the inquiry to determine whether it had been intentionally misused to justify the war.
Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada renewed his call Tuesday for that portion of the investigation, invoking Friday's indictment of Cheney's aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on charges that he lied to a grand jury about his role in leaking classified information about a war critic's wife.
"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 challenge its actions," Reid said, moments before springing the secret session.
A visibly angry Bill Frist, the Senate's normally unflappable Republican leader, immediately lashed back, noting that most previous closed sessions have been called by joint agreement of both party leaders. What especially annoyed Frist was that Reid acted without consulting him.
"This is an affront to me personally," said Frist, of Tennessee. "It's an affront to our leadership. It's an affront to the United States of America. And it is wrong."
Under Senate rules, the Senate can go into closed session at the request of one senator, provided another senator seconds the motion. Since 1929, when the Senate first allowed treaties and nominations to be discussed in public, the Senate has held 53 secret sessions, most involving discussion of classified materials. Six of the most recent closed sessions occurred during the impeachment trial of President Clinton.
The Democrats' move had clear political motivations. The war in Iraq is driving down President Bush's approval ratings and putting Republicans on the defensive. Democrats tried Friday and throughout the weekend to link the Libby indictment to Bush's overall war policy.
But Bush changed the subject Monday by nominating Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The nomination thrilled conservatives, angered liberals and turned public attention away from Iraq. Senate Democrats pulled it back Tuesday.
Their maneuver also has policy and legislative consequences, putting the spotlight on the Senate's oversight responsibilities.
The Senate Intelligence Committee voted in June 2003 to investigate prewar intelligence on Iraq after U.S.-led forces found none of the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs that Bush had charged Saddam Hussein with hiding when making his case for war.
In February 2004, the panel agreed to expand its inquiry to determine whether assertions by Bush, his lieutenants and other public officials about Iraq's alleged weapons programs and ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network were backed up by intelligence.
That part of the investigation also was to examine the roles played by two secretive Pentagon units in intelligence assessments on Iraq, and information fed to the administration by an Iraqi exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, which had close ties to Cheney and other leading pro-war hawks.
The committee's July 2004 report on the first phase of its investigation excoriated the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies for suffering from "group think" and other flaws in erroneously concluding that Iraq was secretly stockpiling weapons in violation of a United Nations ban.
But the second phase of the investigation has been held up by differences between Republicans and Democrats over requests for documents from the White House and whether statements about Iraq by members of Congress should be included in the review.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, accused the Republicans of stalling the second phase of the investigation on orders from the White House.
"What disturbs me the most ... is that the majority has been willing, in this senator's judgment, to take orders from this administration when it comes to limiting the scope of ... oversight investigations," Rockefeller said after the open session resumed. "The very independence of the United States Congress as a separate and co-equal branch of the government has been called into question."
On Tuesday, Reid and Frist agreed to name three Democrats and three Republicans on the intelligence committee who'll report to the leadership in two weeks on the progress of the panel's investigation.
Roberts dismissed the interim report as "irrelevant" because he intended for the committee to complete the second phase anyway, which he blamed Democrats for stalling. He said his staff informed its Democratic counterparts on Monday that they should work to complete the inquiry next week.
"The committee was already doing its work," Roberts said. He called the secret session "an unfortunate stunt."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.