WASHINGTON – In a highly unusual move, Democratic leaders forced the Republican-controlled Senate to meet in a secret session Tuesday afternoon to dramatize their complaint that Republicans have failed to investigate the manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

With American deaths in Iraq hitting the 2,000 mark last week and the war increasingly unpopular at home, the carefully orchestrated theatrics suggested that Democrats are becoming more willing to step up their questions and criticism about the Bush administration’s initial decision to wage war.

The tactic caught Republicans completely unaware, goading them into a seething fury at losing control of the Senate and at what they denounced as a political stunt.

“The toll in Iraq is as staggering as it is solemn,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in announcing the maneuver. “The troops have a right to expect answers and accountability worthy of that sacrifice.”

The closed session meant that reporters, staff, and visitors were excluded from the upper chamber of Congress, along with C-SPAN, the cable network that ordinarily televises all Senate proceedings. All doors to the Senate floor were shut as guards stood by for almost two hours of private discussion.

Republicans angrily denounced the dramatic move as nothing more than a political circus act by a minority party desperate for attention.

‘Affront to me’

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., complained that Reid’s call for a secret session was a violation of the Senate’s traditional civility, “an affront to me personally” and a sign that he could no longer trust the Democratic leader.

Democrats, Frist said, virtually sputtering with anger, “have no conviction, they have no principles, they have no ideas. If they want to get in the gutter, that’s – that’s I guess what they want to do.”

But Democrats said their GOP counterparts were resorting to name-calling because they had no good answers to serious questions about the decisions that led to the war in Iraq.

“I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations aren’t being conducted,” Reid said as he invoked the rarely used Senate Rule 21, forcing the Senate into closed session.

The move gave Democrats a brief spotlight in which to air their grievances. A secret session can be triggered simply by a motion, without a majority of senators agreeing, and Reid and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the assistant minority leader, had clearly planned the move well in advance, to the shock of unsuspecting Republicans.

“We have lost over 2,000 of our best and bravest. Over 15,000 have been seriously wounded,” Durbin said. “We are spending more than $6 billion a month, with no end in sight.

And this Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee refuses to even ask the hard questions about the misinformation and disinformation given to the American people, and the efforts made by the members of this administration to cover it up.”

Democrats also said Friday’s indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, had served as a catalyst for their anger.

“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.

Much of the Democrats’ ire was focused on the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. The committee put together a 511-page report last year on the problems with the intelligence gathered by the CIA and other agencies in the run-up to the Iraq war.

But Roberts had promised that a second phase of review would examine how that intelligence was used, or misused, by the Bush administration.

“My colleagues and I have tried for two years to do our oversight work, and for two years we have been undermined, avoided, put off, and vilified by the other side. Any line of questioning that has brought us too close to the White House has been thwarted,” said Sen. John Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the intelligence committee.

Roberts angrily responded that his staff had been hard at work on the second phase of the investigation and had hoped to conclude that work next week – something he said that Democrats knew.

Further, Roberts blamed Democrats for many of the delays. “It was very clear to me they didn’t want to do the hard, slogging work,” Roberts said.

And he noted that his staff had interviewed 250 intelligence analysts and asked if they were ever pressured or felt that their conclusions were in any way manipulated. None of the 250 said that was the case, Roberts said.

By the end of Tuesday’s theatrics, both parties agreed to appoint three senators apiece to meet and report back to Senate leaders by Nov. 14 on the Intelligence Committee’s progress in its review of pre-war intelligence and its schedule for completion. But that didn’t mean that senators were happy about it.



(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-01-05 2233EST


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