Investigating Government Information Secrecy: Closed-Door Sessions of the United States House and Senate
Written by Ann M. Schultz
In the early autumn of 2013, Syria’s leadership used chemical weapons on its own people. This action resulted in the deaths of some 1,400 people, almost 400 of whom were children. In response to this atrocity, the United States government debated whether or not to take military action against the Syrian regime. As part of this debate, there were several closed-door sessions with government officials (Eilperin, 2013, para. 1). This might lead some readers to wonder when the United States government may convene secret sessions of the House of Representatives and Senate. Where do United States legislators and the President derive the right to meet secretly to discuss national matters? A recent report of the Congressional Research Service answers these questions, as well as several others.
A secret session of the House and Senate is one that “exclude[s] the press and the public” (Davis, 2013, p. ii). This type of session can be held “for matters deemed to require confidentiality and secrecy – such as national security, sensitive communications received from the President, and Senate deliberations during impeachment trials” (Davis, 2013, p. ii). The authority to hold a closed session of Congress may be found in Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings . . . . Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their judgment require Secrecy . . . .” (Davis, 2013, p. ii).
There have been 41 closed Senate sessions since 1929 (Davis, 2013, p. 4), and six closed House sessions since 1812 (Davis, 2013, p. 5). Some of the reasons for these secret sessions included: alleged assassination plots involving foreign leaders (Nov. 20, 1975) (Davis, 2013, p. 4); Nicaragua (Apr. 26, 1983) (Davis, 2013, p. 4); a Chemical Weapons Convention (Apr. 24, 1997) (Davis, 2013, p. 5); the impeachment trial of President William Clinton (Jan. 25-26, 1999; Feb. 9-12, 1999) (Davis, 2013, p. 5); Iraq war intelligence (Nov. 1, 2005) (Davis, 2013, p. 5); and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and electronic surveillance (Mar. 13, 2008) (Davis, 2013, p. 5).
While many may find the idea of secret sessions of United States lawmakers to be disconcerting, some individuals might be satisfied to know that these closed sessions do not seem to have been abused, with only 47 such sessions being held between both the House and the Senate in the entirety of recorded United States government history. Nevertheless, it is important that citizens are aware that these secret sessions do happen on occasion. Given recent government abuses uncovered by whistleblowers, such as the murder of civilians in Iraq and the unconstitutional wiretapping of, and spying on, an unknown number of United States citizens without probable cause or a warrant, it is important that Americans keep abreast of the discussions occurring in the government.
Each day it seems that new information is released that calls into question the transparency and the integrity of the American political system. It is only through focused attention and decisive action that citizens can retain their right to be kept informed about the actions of government officials and employees. As iconic President Thomas Jefferson stated: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Unfortunately, it is impossible for a populace to remain vigilant if it is ignorant of the machinations of its leaders. While the reasoned and measured use of closed-door hearings by the House and Senate is to be applauded, it behooves Americans to stay alert, to hold politicians accountable, and to make sure that they do not fall down the slippery slope of government censorship, obfuscation, and reprisal.
- Do you believe that U.S. legislation regarding closed sessions of the House and Senate should be revised? Why or why not?
- If you do believe that U.S. policy should be modified, what modifications do you believe are appropriate?
Ann M. Schultz is a licensed Michigan attorney. She received her Juris Doctor from Michigan State University College of Law, and her Bachelor of Arts in English and Psychology from Albion College. She expects to receive her Master of Library and Information Science with a Certificate in Information Management in 2014 from the Wayne State University School of Library and Information Science.
Davis, C. M. (Mar. 15, 2013). Secret Sessions of the House and Senate: Authority, Confidentiality, and Frequency. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved fromhttp://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/secrecy/R42106.pdf
Eilperin, J. (Sept. 2, 2013). McCain says rejecting Syria resolution would be ‘catastrophic.’ The Washington Post. Retrieved fromhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/09/02/mccain-says-rejecting-syria-resolution-would-be-catastrophic/