Liberal Dems seek secret FISA session

Liberal House Democrats are pushing for a closed session to discuss the legal underpinnings of President Bush’s intelligence surveillance program.

They believe that the more members know about it, the less likely they will be to support Bush’s wish to make it permanent.


“I haven’t heard anything in closed session that makes me think we need the Protect America Act,” said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), an Intelligence Committee member, referring to a White House-backed interim wiretapping bill that lapsed this month. “Or that FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], with modest modifications, isn’t the way to go into the future.”

The request for the closed session came in a letter coauthored by Holt and Reps. John Tierney (D-Mass.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Holt refused to confirm the letter, but other Democrats say it was brought up at Tuesday’s Democratic Caucus meeting.

The three want all members allowed to see documents that outline the administration’s legal opinions on the program. So far, only Intelligence and Judiciary Committee members have been allowed to see them.

The three believe it is impractical to have all members go to the secure offices of the Intelligence Committee to review the documents. Instead, they want a presentation before the whole House, but in a closed session because the information is classified.

“It’s hard to make a decision on something like immunity when you don’t even know what it’s for,” said Schakowsky. “I think everyone should learn the highlights.”

Schakowsky presented the idea Tuesday to Pelosi during a discussion on FISA at the caucus meeting. Pelosi said she would review the details, but did not give a decision.

The request comes as Democrats are feeling more confident in their defiance of Bush on his signature issue of national security.

“The pendulum is swinging back on the issue of civil liberties,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) “We may be finding an atmosphere that’s much calmer.”{mospagebreak}

Democrats Tuesday voted down 212-198 an attempt by House Republicans to bring up the Senate-passed version of the surveillance bill, which would shield from lawsuits the telephone companies that participated in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

Democratic leaders dialed up their rhetoric, accusing the administration of whipping up the public’s fear to hide its own questionable conduct.

“They think they did something wrong and they don’t want it disclosed,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “It has nothing to do with our nation’s security.”


Republicans said it has everything to do with the nation’s security.

“Every day that the House Democratic leadership delays, we are losing valuable information about terrorists’ plans. That is wrong and dangerous, and I welcome any Democratic member who agrees to vote with us,” said House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerIs Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-Ohio).

The House-passed surveillance bill, written by Democrats, does not grant immunity to the carriers and grants more power to the FISA court, which has traditionally overseen foreign intelligence surveillance. The Senate passed a bill earlier this month, with strong GOP support, that includes immunity. The White House has threatened to veto any bill that does not shield carriers from lawsuits.

House and Senate Democrats have been meeting to resolve their differences on the surveillance legislation.

Republicans have declined to attend the meetings, saying Congress should pass the Senate version of the bill with no changes.

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerIs Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE’s spokesman, Kevin Smith, derided the secret session proposal as a stalling tactic.

“There are clear rules and procedures for how Congress handles classified information,” Smith said. “This nonsense is nothing more than another stalling tactic from a bunch of liberals who don’t want to give our intelligence officials all the tools they need to keep America safe.”

Secret sessions are fairly rare, according to the House Historian’s Office. Since 1830, the House has met behind doors only three times; 1979, 1980 and 1983.

There are other ways the House can meet behind closed doors, but that, too, is rare. In July 1998, the House held a secret “briefing” from law enforcement officials in the chamber about the shooting of two Capitol police officers earlier that month. In March 1999, the House had a secret “meeting” on classified emerging ballistic missile threats.

But this was not considered a “secret session,” according to the historian’s office, because it was held by a former defense secretary chairing a commission on missile threats.

In May 2007, Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeAre Senate Republicans certain that Trump can return to office? Jeff Flake calls Trump's language 'authoritarian' Fallout from Kavanaugh confirmation felt in Washington one year later MORE (R-Ariz.) tried to get the House to go into closed session to discuss earmarks in the Intelligence authorization bill. His motion failed 207-217.