House Closes its Doors to Hide From Public

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Last time the U.S. House of Representatives did this, the beloved television show "M.A.S.H." was ending its run, the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign was starting and "The Big Chill" was breeding baby boomer self-examination.

It was July 1983 that the House last closed its doors to keep the public from hearing a session. And that was only the third time since 1830 it had done so.

Thursday night's hourlong session was the fourth.

The House closed its doors to listen to secret aspects of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — the law that has, in recent years, been tweaked to support an ongoing domestic surveillance program. Before today's planned public debate on reactivating an expired portion of FISA, a senior Republican congressman requested the secret session.

Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution says Congress can talk about something in private, such as impeachment plans or matters of national security, when the topic "may in their Judgment require Secrecy." In its first several decades, the House routinely held secret meetings. But the practice ceased around 1830.

In 1979, a Panama Canal discussion was closed, and in 1980 the House secretly talked about aid to Central America. The last time, in 1983, the topic was paramilitary operations in Nicaragua.

Before the House went into its secret hour, members debated the idea of the session on the House floor. Onetime presidential hopeful Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D- Ohio, refused to support it. "What would conceivably be the nature of the debate?" he asked Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D- Maryland.

"I can't tell you that, because I don't know," Hoyer said.

The information discussed, according to Minority Whip Roy Blunt, included secret points that had already been shared with the intelligence committee, which routinely hears classified and sensitive information. "It's not a political ploy," the Missouri Republican said. "I did have some information that I thought would help the debate."

Some members said they were suspicious about the timing of the closed meeting, on the eve of a debate on the controversial bill. Others simply didn't like the message it sends.

"This is the citadel of free speech," Kucinich said. "Once we close that up, we're changing the nature of it.""

"I'm not going to attend such a session," he declared.

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