Thursday, March 13, 2008

House Closes Its Doors for Spying Bill

WASHINGTON - The House held a closed session Thursday for the first time in 25 years to discuss a hotly contested surveillance bill.

Republicans requested privacy for what they termed "an honest debate" on the new Democratic eavesdropping measure that is opposed by the White House and most Republicans in Congress.

Lawmakers were forbidden to disclose what was said during the hour-long session. The extent to which minds were changed, if at all, should be more clear Friday, when the House was expected to openly debate and then vote on the bill.

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas said she didn't believe anyone changed positions but that the session was useful because no one would be able to complain on Friday that their views had not been heard.

House going to secret session for FISA

UPDATE - 8:36 p.m. - With the help of Minority Whip Blunt's office, I got hold of a Congressional Research Service report that gives you all the detail you ever wanted about secret sessions.

The House chamber is sealed and undergoing its security sweep. The secret session will begin at some point in the next hour or two.

This is from a May 25, 2007 CRS report by Mildred Amer:

The Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention met in secret. The Senate met in secret until 1794, its first rules reflecting a belief that the body's various special roles, including providing advice and consent to the executive branch, compelled it to conduct its business behind closed doors. The Senate's executive sessions (to consider nominations and treaties) were not opened until 1929.

Since 1929, the Senate has held 54 secret sessions, generally for reasons of national security. On November 1, 2005, the Senate met behind closed doors to discuss Iraq war intelligence. Six of the seven most recent secret sessions, however, were held during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. In 1997, the Senate met in secret to consider the Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty and in 1992, to debate the "most favored nation" status of China. The Senate also closed its doors during the impeachment trial of federal judges in 1933 and 1936 and on six occasions in the 1980s.

The House met frequently in secret session through the end of the War of 1812, and then only in 1825 and in 1830. Since 1830, the House has met behind closed doors only three times: in 1979 to discuss the Panama Canal, in 1980 to discuss Central American assistance, and in 1983 to discuss U.S. support for paramilitary operations in Nicaragua.

Members and staff of both houses are prohibited from divulging information from secret sessions, and all staff are sworn to secrecy. Violations of secrecy are punishable by the disciplinary rules of a chamber. A Member may be subject to a variety of punishments, including loss of seniority, fine, reprimand, censure, or expulsion. An officer or employee may be fired or subject to other internal disciplinary actions.


UPDATE - 7:25 p.m. - Some House Democrats are raising objections to the secret session, but Majority Leader Hoyer is trying to persuade them to agree to one, in an interesting floor debate.

It appears he has just succeeded, after Rep. David Scott, Georgia Democrat, withdrew his objection.

"We walk a very delicate balance this evening. Let us hope that we walk it right," Mr. Scott said, just before agreeing to drop his reservation.

The vote will now occur tomorrow, regardless.

Nick Simpson, spokesman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, says the House has gone into secret session five times since 1825.

Here are the five occasions:

December 27, 1825 — To receive a confidential message from the President regarding relations with Indian tribes.

May 27, 1830 — To receive a confidential message from the President
on a bill regulating trade between the U.S. and Great Britain.

June 20, 1979 — Panama Canal Act of 1979; implementing legislation.

February 25, 1980 — Cuban and other Communist-bloc countries
involvement in Nicaragua.

July 19, 1983 — U.S. support for paramilitary operations in Nicaragua.


UPDATE - 4:41 P.M. - Democratic leaders are already saying they don't think the secret session will be persuasive. Here's House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, who has already been briefed by the White House on the classified details of the FISA program.

My colleagues who joined me in the hearings and reviewed the Administration's documents have walked away with an inescapable conclusion: the Administration has not made the case for unprecedented spying powers and blanket retroactive immunity for phone companies.

Whether this is a worthwhile exercise or mere grandstanding depends on whether Republicans have groundbreaking new information that would affect the legislative process. There must be a very high bar to urge the House into a secret session for the first time in 25 years. I eagerly await their presentation to see if it clears this threshold. As someone who has seen and heard an enormous amount of information already, I have my doubts.

It should be noted that Majority Leader Hoyer complained today that "the President is asking Congress to immunize companies for their conduct, despite the fact that Congress is not sure what conduct it would be immunizing."

But the White House says they've briefed lawmakers such as Mr. Hoyer, along with the rest of the House leadership and members of the intelligence and judiciary committees. Mr. Conyer's point that he has been briefed but not persuaded seems to contradict Mr. Hoyer's point that Congress doesn't know what they're being asked to do.

I've asked Mr. Hoyer's office for a clarification but have not received an answer so far today.


UPDATE - 4:30 P.M. - Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, has indeed agreed to go into secret session, his office announced. Here is his statement:

"The Majority received a request from the Minority Whip, Mr. Blunt, for the House to go into secret session. Mr. Blunt stated that Members in the Minority believe they have information relevant to the debate on FISA that cannot be publicly discussed. The Majority agreed to Mr. Blunt’s request so that the Members may hear this information in a secret session that will proceed for one hour, equally divided, and controlled by the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader. At the conclusion of the debate, the secret session shall be dissolved.”

A House staffer says that the secret session will convene around 8 p.m.

This is interesting: the House will recess after they finish voting this afternoon, and then security officers will do a sweep of the House chamber prior to the secret session. This is required before every secret session, the staffer said, to make sure there are no listening devices in the chamber.

No word yet on whether the House will actually vote tonight on FISA.


UPDATE - 2:45 P.M. - Apparently, the earliest that the House will vote on the FISA bill is probably around 6:30 this evening, and there is still a possibility that the House will come back tomorrow morning for the vote.

After the House recesses, either tonight or tomorrow, they are out until Monday, March 31.


This just came in from Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican:

Folks - I wanted to make sure all of heard that it is our understanding that Majority Leader Hoyer has agreed to our request that the House go into a secret session today. We will discuss the importance of permanently extending the Protect America Act, the flaws in the Democrats' new FISA legislation, and why immediate passage of the bipartisan, Senate-passed FISA bill is the best solution to protect the American people and our Armed Forces around the world. I believe this will be the first secret session in the House since 1983.

Mr. Boehner said in his press conference today that the session is needed "to have a candid discussion about the urgent need to give our intelligence officials all the tools they need to protect the American people."

"Sometimes we have these conversations in public settings, other times we have them in more classified briefings," Mr. Boehner said.

A Hill source says that this closed session will allow Republicans to talk more openly with members about classified information, such as what exactly the telecom companies will be getting immunity for if the White House gets what it wants.

There are, however, four members who will not be allowed to attend the secret session, having refused to sign the oath of confidentiality. They are all Democrats: Rep. George Miller of California, Rep. Jim McDermott, of Washington Rep. Peter Stark of California, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, of Ohio.

— Jon Ward, White House correspondent, The Washington Times