WASHINGTON — Democrats claimed “victory for the American people” Tuesday after the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed to continue an investigation into prewar intelligence claims made by the Republicans, the Senate minority leader said.
Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., forced the Republican-controlled Senate into an unusual closed session for more than two hours Tuesday, accusing Republicans of ignoring intelligence that President Bush used before invading Iraq.
A phase-by-phase investigation will resume, Reid announced after the secret session. It will be the second stage of a probe that Democrats have been pressing for for a year.
An appointed six-member task force — three members from each party — will review the committee’s progress and report back to their respective caucuses by Nov. 14.
Despite prewar claims, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, and some Democrats have accused the administration of manipulating information.
“They have repeatedly chosen to protect the Republican administration rather than get to the bottom of what happened and why,” Reid said.
Taken by surprise, furious Republicans derided the unexpected closed Senate session as a political stunt.
“The United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership,” said Majority Leader Bill Frist during the tense hours on Capitol Hill. “They have no convictions, they have no principles, they have no ideas.”
In a speech on the Senate floor, Reid said the American people and U.S. troops deserved to know the details of how the United States became engaged in the war, particularly in light of the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.
“Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has been trying for a year to get the intelligence committee to keep its promise and investigate the misuse of intelligence information,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said shortly before the session ended. “We just thought we couldn't wait any longer for them to keep giving excuses. This is very serious.”
When the closed session started, the public was ordered out of the chamber, the lights were dimmed, senators filed to their seats on the floor and the doors were closed. No vote is required in such circumstances.
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Provoked by Libby indictment
Libby was indicted last Friday in an investigation that touched on the war, the leak of the identity of a CIA official married to a critic of the administration’s Iraq policy.
Libby resigned Friday after being indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury in an investigation by a special prosecutor into the unauthorized leak of a CIA agent’s identity.
Reid accused Republicans of playing upon post-9/11 fears as grounds for going to war.
“Obviously we know now their nuclear claims were wholly inaccurate,” he said. “But more troubling is the fact that a lot of intelligence experts were telling the Administration then that its claims about Saddam's nuclear capabilities were false.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., produced a 511-page report last summer on flaws of an Iraq intelligence estimate assembled by the country’s top analysts in October 2002, and he promised a second phase would look at issues that couldn’t be finalized in the first year of work.
The committee had started the second phase of the review, Roberts said, but it has not been completed. He said he had intended all along to work on the second phase beginning next week.
Democrats challenging war justification
Democrats contend that the unmasking of Valerie Plame was retribution for her husband, Joseph Wilson, publicly challenging the Bush administration’s contention that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium from Africa. That claim was part of the White House’s justification for going to war.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Reid was making “some sort of stink about Scooter Libby and the CIA leak.”
A former majority leader, Lott said a closed session is appropriate for such overarching matters as impeachment and chemical weapons — the two topics that last sent the senators into such sessions.
In addition, Lott said, Reid’s move violated the Senate’s tradition of courtesy and consent. But there was nothing in Senate rules enabling Republicans to thwart Reid’s effort.
As Reid spoke, Frist met in the back of the chamber with a half-dozen senior GOP senators, including Roberts, who bore the brunt of Reid’s criticism. Reid said Roberts reneged on a promise to fully investigate whether the administration exaggerated and manipulated intelligence leading up to the war.
The Senate had been considering a budget bill when it went into closed session.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.