Democrats Force Closed Debate

Times Staff Writers

Senate Democrats on Tuesday forced a surprise, 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 just 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 Bush administration during the buildup to the war.

“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.).

Frist, complaining that Reid breached Senate courtesy by acting without consulting him, called the Democratic leader’s action “an affront to me personally.” He added: “From now on ... I can’t trust Sen. Reid.”

The harsh words indicated rising tensions in the Senate as it moves toward consideration of the Supreme Court nomination of federal appellate Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- a selection that could determine the high court’s direction for decades -- and squabbles over proposed budget cuts.

The partisan battle also underscored a greater willingness by Democratic lawmakers to publicly question the administration’s truthfulness as it pushed for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Before the war, Bush and other administration officials contended that the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was developing a nuclear arsenal.

Those allegations were generally accepted as accurate by Republicans, most Democrats and most intelligence officials. But the allegations 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 Hussein.

Democratic leadership aides said Reid was emboldened by the Libby indictment Friday and the recent passing of the 2,000-death mark for U.S. troops in Iraq.

Reid, speaking on the Senate floor, 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 C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador who had publicly questioned intelligence that Bush used in making the case for war.

Libby resigned his White House job 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 that the Senate go into closed session.

Under Senate rules, any senator can force the Senate into a closed session, which requires the sergeant at arms to clear the chamber of visitors, dim the lights and make sure TV cameras are turned off.

The 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 had been making progress on the second part of its investigation, which was examining prewar statements by U.S. officials.

In a statement, 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.

Cheney’s office may be a focus of the investigation’s second phase because he was the most outspoken senior official making the case for war.

Also, members of his staff were known to be advocates for Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi and the intelligence information he was providing.

Democrats have expressed increasing frustration over the administration’s refusal to turn over key documents that might help with the inquiry, including a 48-page dossier given to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell by Libby before Powell’s presentation to the United Nations in early 2003 that sought to make the case for war with Iraq.

A key mystery -- the origin of falsified documents from Niger that became the basis of a claim that Iraq sought uranium for development of nuclear weapons -- was assigned to the FBI for further investigation during the first part of the Intelligence Committee’s investigation. Democrats and Republicans have pressed the FBI for information from that inquiry, Intelligence Committee staff members said.

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.”