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Republican leaders livid after Democrats force closed session on Iraq
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Tuesday forced a closed-door debate about an investigation into the White House's justification for the war in Iraq, signaling a new determination to challenge President Bush and triggering a bitter fight with Republicans.
Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., launched the move days after the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, in a case that put the spotlight on the intelligence used by the administration during the buildup to the war.
The maneuver surprised Republicans and shifted attention back to the increasingly unpopular war and away from Bush's day-old Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito.
Republicans condemned the Democrats' move as grandstanding. It marked the first time in more than 25 years that one party had insisted on a closed session without consulting the other party.
"What has been the response of this Republican-controlled Congress to the administration's manipulation of intelligence that led to this protracted war in Iraq? Basically nothing," Reid said.
Reid forced the Senate to interrupt a debate on budget cuts — a GOP priority — and go into the rare, closed session to discuss a Senate committee investigation into prewar intelligence on the danger posed by Iraq.
During the session, the Senate agreed that a bipartisan group of lawmakers would present a status report on the investigation within two weeks.
But Reid's move drew an unusual personal rebuke from his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. The usually unflappable Frist was visibly angry as he said the Senate "has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership. They have no convictions, they have no principles, they have no ideas."
Never before, he said, had he been "slapped in the face with such an affront ... For the next year and a half, I can't trust Senator Reid."
The harsh words were indicative of rising tensions in the Senate as it moves toward consideration of the Alito nomination, a selection that could determine the high court's direction for decades, and squabbles over proposed budget cuts.
Before the war, Bush and other administration officials contended that the government of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was developing a nuclear arsenal.
Those claims were generally accepted as accurate by Republicans, most Democrats and most intelligence officials. But the claims have since proved false.
Reid said he acted Tuesday out of frustration over delays in the completion of a long-promised Senate investigation into intelligence used by the Bush administration as it sought to build support in late 2002 and early 2003 for toppling Saddam.
Democratic leadership aides said Reid was emboldened by the Libby indictment Friday and the recent passing of the 2,000th death for U.S. troops in Iraq.
On the Senate floor, Reid said the Libby indictment showed "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."
He was referring to the five-count felony indictment that charged Libby with perjury, making false statements to a federal officer and obstruction of justice in connection with an investigation into who in mid-2003 disclosed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. She is married to Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who had publicly questioned intelligence that Bush used in making the case for war.
Libby resigned after the indictments.
Shaking his finger, Reid said: "I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why" the Senate committee investigation had not made more progress. He then moved the Senate into closed session, which forced aides to turn off the chamber's cameras and close its massive doors after evicting all visitors, reporters and most staff members.
Authority to hold secret Senate sessions is provided in Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution, and the Continental Congress met behind closed doors. But the practice has ebbed in recent years. The most recent closed Senate session was in February 1999 to deliberate President Clinton's impeachment trial, according to the Congressional Research Service, and that was done through a bipartisan agreement.
Tuesday's closed session lasted about two hours and produced the agreement to have a six-member group, consisting of three senators from each party, report by Nov. 14 on the progress and likely completion of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation.
Reid's maneuver caught Republicans off-guard. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said the panel has been making progress on the second part of its investigation, which is examining prewar statements by U.S. officials.
He called the closed session a "petty public stunt" by Democrats. He added that the move was "truly amazing, especially since just yesterday, we informed Democratic staff that I wanted to conclude our work. If my Democrat friends spent more time working on Phase II of the investigation and less time grandstanding, we may actually get this done."
The first part of the committee's inquiry, completed in July 2004, dealt with prewar intelligence, Iraq's ties to terrorists and the question of whether intelligence had been politicized by the White House or others. The second part is examining whether public statements by U.S. officials were substantiated by intelligence information. It also is comparing those prewar statements with postwar findings.
After the closed session, Reid said, "Finally, after months and months and months of begging, cajoling, writing letters, we're finally going to be able to have Phase II of the investigation regarding how the intelligence was used to lead us into the intractable war in Iraq."
Responding to Frist's complaint that he had been "slapped in the face" when Reid forced the closed session without consulting him, the Democratic leader said, "It's a slap in the face to the American people that this investigation has been stymied."
Material from The Washington Post and Knight Ridder Newspapers is included in this report.
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