WASHINGTON — Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey took aim this week at the Senate Armed Services Committee for retreating behind closed doors to craft the National Defense Authorization Act.
“Closed hearings of these kinds strengthen the hand of lobbyists and special interests,” Kerrey said. “They prevent citizens from taking action on objectionable provisions.”
Kerrey is the Democratic nominee running against Republican State Sen. Deb Fischer to replace Democrat Ben Nelson, who is retiring. Fischer had no immediate comment on Kerrey's statement.
Nelson is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, which has been acting largely in closed sessions to assemble the annual legislation that sets out the nation's defense policy.
The Readiness and Management Support subcommittee was the only subcommittee to opt for an open session on the bill this week. The subcommittee's chairwoman, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has been a vocal proponent of opening the full committee's debates.
But the full committee sessions this week are all listed as closed.
Kerrey described the committee's secrecy as “a big mistake” that should be reversed. He said it is particularly important for the public to hear lawmakers' discussions about the legislation because the measure represents more than $600 billion in federal spending, more than half of the year's discretionary budget.
“The bill will also provide guidance on issues ranging from detention to contracting policy,” he said. “Congress should do the work on this bill in the public for the taxpayers to see.”
The full committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has said the hearings are closed because of classified information.
Asked about Kerrey's statement, Nelson agreed generally that transparency is good, but defended the closed sessions as a way to safeguard national security.
“There are two committees at least, two particular committees, the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, that deal with issues beyond being sensitive — they are classified,” Nelson said.
Nelson is chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, which closed its session Wednesday.
“We were talking about missile defense issues, and some of those missile defense issues involved other countries,” Nelson said Wednesday afternoon as he walked into the full committee's similarly closed session.
Kerrey, a former Navy SEAL and former vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee while a Nebraska senator in the 1990s, told The World-Herald he understands that classified information should not be released to the public. He said the committee should close the classified portions but open up for the bulk of the legislation.
The director of public policy for the Project On Government Oversight, Angela Canterbury, welcomed Kerrey's comments.
Canterbury said drafts of the defense bill and any amendments are often released days or weeks after the closed sessions. Both she and Kerrey pointed to members of the House of Representatives and McCaskill, who hold open sessions on such legislation.
“They certainly have it fully within their power to close only for classified information,” she said. “That's what the House does. That's what other committees do. That's the right way to conduct the people's business.”
Asked about the open sessions held by McCaskill and the House, Nelson said that's the choice of those in charge.
He said the public eventually is able to see what's in the legislation.
“Ultimately,” Nelson said, “this will all be disclosed as part of the budgetary process, but the discussion about it sometimes does need to be in a classified setting.”
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