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WMD Session Fades in Senate

The top Senators on the Intelligence Committee now oppose the idea of holding what would be a historic closed-door session of the chamber’s full membership to deal with intelligence regarding the war in Iraq.

Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the panel, and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the panel’s vice chairman, said Tuesday that they did not support holding an executive session of the Senate with all 100 Senators and just a few aides present and sworn to secrecy, citing the release of last week’s report on pre-war intelligence and their ongoing probe of other Iraq-related issues.

Agreed to five months ago by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as a proper way to examine intelligence, momentum for the executive session has waned seriously, according to GOP and Democratic aides.

One GOP aide hinted that with Roberts and Rockefeller both opposed to the idea, the chances for the historic session — the last such executive session was held in 1999 during the Clinton impeachment trial — were even more remote.

“I don’t see that there’s any need for an executive session,” Roberts said.

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” Rockefeller said, agreeing that the ongoing committee probe was moving quickly enough that such a session would only get in the way.

Daschle and Senate Democrats began agitating for the session in January and early February, when there were ongoing reports questioning pre-war intelligence claims about Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and possession of other weapons of mass destruction.

In mid-February, Frist agreed to hold the session but won a concession from Daschle that it it would not be held until after the Intelligence Committee completed and issued the report on the first phase of its investigation concerning pre-war intelligence. That document was released Friday.

Originally slated for April, the session never came to fruition in the spring as the process of getting the committee’s report drafted and cleared by the CIA dragged well into the summer. Aides to Daschle said this week that he may still push for the secret session on intelligence, but it appeared that such a move would not come until after the committee has completed the second phase of its probe and released that report — which will cover the far more controversial topic of how pre-war intelligence was handled by the Bush administration, a touchy area that could take many months for the panel to hammer out.

In laying out the timeline for the second phase of his probe, Roberts made clear he had no expectation of a speedy conclusion. “We want to get it right rather than [setting] some arbitrary deadline,” he said.

That timetable makes it virtually certain that no executive session could be held before the Nov. 2 elections, if one were to be held at all.

Noting that the committee voted 17-0 to approve the report released last week, Roberts said the investigation was moving along, however slowly, in a bipartisan fashion and that any attempt to hold a special executive session of the chamber could inflame partisan tensions.

Instead, he offered, “Every Senator can go over and read the classified report.”

Rockefeller agreed that the probe was moving well enough that such a session might get in the way. “Wouldn’t that be a reason not to talk about it?” he asked.

He suggested that Daschle first pushed for the plan when Democrats felt that the Bush administration was stonewalling the committee in its probe, as well as the 9/11 commission and other oversight investigations.

“There was sort of a feeling we weren’t going anywhere,” Rockefeller said.

He said that he and Roberts had resisted the idea initially, a position that has only been strengthened in recent months. “We thought it would be ultimately destructive,” Rockefeller said.

Since 1929, the Senate has met in 53 closed executive sessions, the last coming over a four-day stretch of deliberations on impeachment in February 1999. Before that, the chamber held executive sessions to debate the chemical weapons treaty in 1997.

All staff, save for a few critical aides, are cleared from the chamber, and those that remain must sign a pledge swearing themselves to secrecy punishable by contempt of Congress charges. C-SPAN cameras are also turned off and the galleries cleared.

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