The Senate Democratic Leader, Harry Reid, has taken the U.S. Senate in executive session, to discuss how the Senate has been stymied in an effort to complete a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of faulty pre-war intelligence that led up to the war with Iraq. The doors of the Senate were locked, the galleries emptied, all staff were ordered out of the Senate chamber, and then lights inside were dimmed. (My personal comments: One has to wonder whether the dimming of the lights was metaphorical in some sense.)
"I demand on behalf of the American people... that the Senate go into close session," Reid said, an action virtually unprecedented because rule 21, which sends the Senate into executive session, is ordinarily done by agreement by both Democrats and Republicans.
Reid explained his actions by saying: "They have repeatedly chosen to protect the Republican administration rather than get to the bottom of what happened and why."
He added: "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." Then Reid unilaterally invoked Senate rules that led to the closed session.
An angry Majority Leader Bill First later emerged from the Senate chamber to briefly tell reporters: "The United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership.... "They have no convictions, they have no principles, they have no ideas." He subsequently said he felt personally "slapped in the face" by Reid's actions.
Two senior Senate staff aides told me today a story posted on the National Journal's website Thursday night, for the first time linking Vice President Cheney himself, Libby, and Cheney's legal counsel, David Addington, to withholding information from Congress on the pre-war intelligence emboldened the Democrats to take action.
The next day, on Friday, the federal grand jury in the CIA leak case indicted Libby on five felony counts of misleading federal investigators, perjury, and obstruction of justice, for concealing his role, and perhaps that of other Bush administration officials, in outing Valerie Plame.
The confluence of the two events led Democrats to take the fight right to the Senate floor as to how the Senate will now proceed to investigate further the pre-war intelligence issue.
First update, 5:45 A.M: Just watched Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post, on Hardball saying that he agreed with First that Reid's actions were a "stunt": "I had to chuck my Alito story," Milbank complained, "and do this for tomorrow."
There was once upon a time when reporters reported, and kept their opinions to themselves. Those days have long passed-- but if journalism has become about opining, instead of reporting, I should note that what was left out of Milbank's comments was that the White House itself also had sped the nomination of a new associate justice for the Supreme Court to change the agenda away from the Libby indictment. And the president's belated announcement today of his request of $7.1 billion of emergency funding to be spent to prevent an Avian flu pandemic was also an attempt to change the subject. If reporters care how much they are supposedly being manipulated, they should say explain that the practices goes on from both sides of the aisle.
Further, whether politics came into play in regards to what took place on the Senate floor today, Milbank's comments were, to my mind, inappropriate in the sense that the motives of politicians, or anyone else for that matter, are often complex and obscure. How he was able to instantly divine the motives of Reid and other Democratic Senators to hundreds of thousands of television viewers is beyond any journalistic ability I possess.
(Not to pick on Milbank, but I am trying to make a larger point that reporters should perhaps gather information-- do actual reporting before they spout off something not the case on television.)
Whether there was a political motive to what Reid today, the truth of the matter is that many Senators felt like they have been lied to, or as one senior staff aide told me, they "felt rolled in an alley"-- in being stymied, as they view it, in conducting an inquiry into the most fundamental issues as to how a country went to war, and whether Congress has a right to oversee whether the administration misused intelligence to make the case.
One of the reasons that Reid chose to go to the floor was because Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, prodded him to so, according to several congressional sources I spoke to today. As vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Rockefeller has been praised by Republicans for his bipartisan approach, and has at times even privately drawn the ire of Democrats.
A partisan stunt? Probably not. And for Milbank or others rushing to judgment, they should perhaps stay away from the green room and do some reporting.
And here, by the way, is why Rockefeller says he encouraged Reid to invoke Rule 21: "An iron curtain came down upon us," he said, referring to White House efforts to stymie the provision of information for the Intelligence Committee to conduct their pre-war intelligence probe.
He also said: "The very independence of the United States Congress as a separate and coequal branch of the government has been called into question."
Sounds like a serious matter to me, not a "stunt" as Dana Milbank has charachterized it.
To read Rockefeller's statement in full, click here.
Second update, 6:32 A.M: In the meantime, Josh Marshall has excerpts from the press release from the Office of Vice President regarding the appointments of David Addington and John Hannah, respectively, as the chief of staff, and national security advisor, to Vice President Cheney.