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Document Friday: So What Does Congress Talk About During Its Secret Sessions?

November 12, 2010

According to a Congressional Research Service report, the Senate has convened secret (or “closed door”) sessions 54 times since 1924.  The House, only four.  The topics of the sessions ranged far and wide.  From the Nike-Zeus anti-missile program, to relations with Indian tribes, to the neutron bomb, to Angola, to impeachments, to Iraq war intelligence.


Here’s the list in full:


This report comes from the Congressional Research Service .  (Interestingly, if you follow the footnotes you’ll see that much of the information comes from the recently deceased Senator Robert Byrd’s four-volume opus, The Senate.)

The Congressional Research Service, or CRS, “works exclusively for the United States Congress” and does not generally provide their reports to the public.  This decision to keep CRS’s products within “the halls of power” is somewhat controversial –the reports are funded by tax payer dollars and are almost always balanced, accurate, informative, and timely pieces of research and writing which could enhance public debate.

Fortunately, the reports are not classified and are therefore widely available on the internet.  I usually get mine from the Federation of American Scientists.

Any member of Congress can request a secret session, though usually there is advance agreement amongst Senators and Representatives before the sessions are convened.  Once approved, the Sergeant of Arms clears the galleries so the Senators or Representatives can speak in secret.

After the sessions finish, there are mechanisms to disclose what was said.  In the House, transcripts of the secret sessions are generally made available to the public after thirty years.  In the Senate, the proceedings remain secret until Senators vote to “remove the injunction on secrecy.”

It appears that the Senate secret sessions are rarely unsealed.  If anyone knows where to find if any of the above sessions are available for the public to read, drop a comment.  I’d love to know.

On two occasions, secret sessions of the Senate were held in the Old Senate Chamber because “its lack of electronic equipment was thought to enhance security.”  (These were on the INF treaty and trade with China.)  But recently, secret sessions have been held in the the regular congressional chambers.  The most recent House secret session was on FISA, the most recent Senate secret session was held on Iraq war intelligence, presumably including the “Plame affair.”

The Congressional Record presents a pretty exciting narrative of what happened when the most recent Senate session was called:

Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know what was said in some of the secret sessions; Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act to provide access to Executive Branch documents, not Legislative.

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