Congress holds closed door session

March 13, 2008 9:27:36 PM PDT
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.

"We couldn't have gone more of an extra mile to make sure we're doing the best for national security," she told The Associated Press.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that he read aloud the titles - but not details - of intelligence reports "that shows the nature of the global threat and how dynamic the situation is, and how fluid."

Hoekstra said the House discussed the procedures intelligence agencies use to protect the identities of innocent Americans whose calls and e-mails are incidentally intercepted in wiretaps.

Hoekstra said three Democrats spoke as did eight or nine Republicans.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said "there was nothing new, nothing that wasn't public, nothing that can't and shouldn't be debated on the floor tomorrow in open session."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he heard nothing new that would change his mind about the bill.

"Tomorrow, I will urge members on both sides of the aisle to vote for this legislation," Hoyer said.

The last such session in the House was in 1983 on U.S. support for paramilitary operations in Nicaragua. Only five closed sessions have taken place in the House since 1825.

Four members declined to sign the confidentiality oath required to participate in the closed session, House staff members said.

Many Democrats initially objected, calling it a political ploy by Republicans to delay a vote on the bill. House leaders did in fact push off the scheduled vote until Friday, just before taking a two-week recess. If it passes, the bill would need Senate approval before going to the president.

President Bush has vowed to veto it, saying it would undermine the nation's security.

Bush opposes it in part because it doesn't provide full, retroactive legal protection to telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on their customers without court permission after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies by people and organizations alleging they violated wiretapping and privacy laws. The lawsuits have been combined and are pending before a single federal judge in California.

The Democrats' measure would encourage the judge to review in private the secret government documents underpinning the program in order to decide whether the companies acted lawfully. If they did, the lawsuits would be dismissed.

The administration has prevented those documents from being revealed, even to a judge, by invoking the state secrets privilege. That puts the companies in a bind because they cannot use the documents to defend themselves in court.

It wasn't clear what information would be presented in the closed session. Just a fraction of Congress has been allowed to read secret documents underpinning the surveillance program, and those who have arrived at varying conclusions.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, after seeing classified material, said the companies acted on the good-faith belief that the wiretaps they allowed were lawful. Democrats on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees were unconvinced after being presented with the same material.

The surveillance law is intended to help in the pursuit of suspected terrorists by making it easier to eavesdrop on foreign phone calls and e-mails that pass through the United States. A temporary law expired Feb. 16 before Congress was able to produce a replacement bill. Bush opposed an extension of the temporary law as a tactic to pressure Congress into accepting the Senate version of the surveillance legislation. The Senate's bill provides retroactive legal immunity for the telecommunications companies.

Bush said lawsuits against telecom companies would lead to the disclosure of state secrets. Further, he said lawsuits would undermine the willingness of the private sector to cooperate with the government in trying to track down terrorists.

Hoekstra said intelligence was already being lost.

"Each and every day our capabilities are eroding," he said.

Directing his message at the House, Bush said, "They should not leave for their Easter recess without getting the Senate bill to my desk."

Bush predicted the Senate would not pass the House version of the bill, and said even if it did, he would veto it.

At least one Senate Republican said the lawsuits should go forward to determine whether the wiretapping program was illegal. But Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter wants to substitute the government for the phone companies as the defendant in the court cases.

"The president can't have a blank check," Specter said in an interview. "If you close down the courts, there's no check and balance."

He added: "Wiretaps are important for national security. There's no doubt about that. Al-Qaida and terrorism continue to be a major threat to this country. It is my hope that the president will not find it necessary to veto the bill, that we'll be able to work it out."

--- Associated Press writers Kimberly Hefling and Terence Hunt contributed to this report.


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