Secret Sessions of Congress: A Brief Historical Overview
Secret Sessions of Congress:
A Brief Historical Overview
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
“Secret” or “closed door” sessions of the House of Representatives and Senate are
held periodically to discuss business, including impeachment deliberations, deemed to
require confidentiality and secrecy. Authority for the two chambers to hold these
sessions appears in Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution. Both the House and the
Senate have supplemented this clause through rules and precedents.
Although secret sessions were common in Congress’s early years, they were lessth
frequent through the 20 century. National security is the principal reason for such
sessions in recent years. Members and staff who attend these meetings are prohibited
from divulging information. Violations are punishable pursuant to each chamber’s
disciplinary rules. Members may be expelled and staff dismissed for violations of the
rules of secrecy. Transcripts from secret sessions are not published unless the relevant
chamber votes to release them during the session or at a later time. The portions released
then may be printed in the Congressional Record.
This report will be revised when either house holds another secret session or
amends its rules for these meetings. For additional information, please refer to CRS
Report 98-718, Secret Sessions of the House and Senate, by Mildred Amer.
“Secret,” or “closed,” sessions of the House and Senate exclude the press and the
public. These sessions are used for Senate deliberations during impeachment trials, as
well as to discuss issues of national security, confidential information, and sensitive
communications received from the President. During a secret session, the doors of the
chamber are closed, and the chamber and its galleries are cleared of all individuals except
Members and those officers and employees specified in the rules or essential to the
session. Secret sessions occur infrequently and have been held more often in the Senate
than the House. Any Member of Congress may request a secret session, although there is
usually agreement in advance among Members of both parties before one calls for a
Authority in the Constitution and Rules
Authority for the House and Senate to hold secret sessions appears in Article I,
Section 5, of the Constitution, which states, “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.” Both
chambers have implemented this section through rules and precedents. A chamber’s rules
apply during secret sessions in the House and Senate, except during impeachment
deliberations in the Senate.
In the House, Rule XVII, clause 9, governs secret sessions, including the types of
business to be considered behind closed doors.2 A motion to resolve into a secret session
may only be made in the House, not in Committee of the Whole. A Member who offers
such a motion announces the possession of confidential information, and moves that the
House go into a secret session. The motion is not debatable, but, if agreed to, the Member
making the motion is recognized under the one-hour rule in closed session. In addition,
under Rule X, clause 11, para. (g)(2)(D)-(g)(2)(G), the House Select Committee on
Intelligence may move that the House hold a secret session to determine whether
classified information held by the committee should be made public.
For Senate impeachment proceedings, Rules XX and XXIV of the Senate Rules for
Impeachment Trials govern secret deliberations. The Senate has interpreted these rules
to require that deliberations be open during impeachment trials, unless a majority votes
for a closed session.3
Standing Senate Rules XXI, XXIX, and XXXI cover secret sessions for legislative
and executive business (nominations and treaties).4 Rule XXI calls for the Senate to close
its doors once a motion is made and seconded. The motion is not debatable, and its
disposition is made behind closed doors. Rule XXIX calls for Senate consideration of
treaties to be conducted in secret unless the Senate lifts the “injunction of secrecy,” which
it usually does by unanimous consent. Rule XXXI mandates that all nominations, treaties,
1 On Nov. 1, 2005, Senate Democrats compelled a closed session with no advanced notice. See
Charles Babington and Dafna Linzer, “Senate Democrats Force Closed Meeting, The Washington
Post, Nov. 2, 2005, pp. A1, A4.
2 For additional information, see William Holmes Brown and Charles W. Johnson, House
Practice, A Guide to the Rules, Precedents, and Procedures of the House (Washington: GPO,
3 For the 1805 impeachment trial of Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Chase, the Senate
decided, “At all times whilst the Senate is sitting upon the trial of an impeachment, the doors ofth
the Senate Chamber shall be kept open.” See “Trial of Judge Chase,” Annals of Congress, 8nd
Cong., 2 sess., Dec. 24 and 31, 1804, p. 92.
4 For additional information, see U.S. Congress, Senate, Riddick’s Senate Procedure, Precedents
and Practices, S.Doc. 101-28, 101st Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington: GPO, 1992), pp. 275-281, 876.
and other matters be considered in open session unless the Senate votes to consider a
matter in secret and, for treaties, the injunction of secrecy has been removed.
History and Current Practice
Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention met in secret. The
Senate met in secret until 1794, its first rules reflecting a belief that the body’s various
special roles, including providing advice and consent to the executive branch, compelled
it to conduct its business behind closed doors. The Senate’s executive sessions (to
consider nominations and treaties) were not opened until 1929.
Since 1929, the Senate has held 54 secret sessions, generally for reasons of national
security. Six of the seven most recent secret sessions, however, were held during the
impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Two of those sessions were in January 1999
to discuss a motion to end the trial and another motion to call witnesses.5 Four were in
February 1999 during the final impeachment deliberations.6
Two of the Senate’s secret meetings were held in the old Senate chamber because
its lack of electronic equipment was thought to enhance security. One session was in 1988
to discuss the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Missiles Treaty, and the other was in
1992 to debate the “most favored nation” status of China. See Table 1 for a complete list
of the 54 secret sessions held by the Senate since 1929.
The House met frequently in secret session through the end of the War of 1812,
mainly to receive confidential communications from the President but also for routine
legislative business. Subsequent secret meetings were held in 1825 and in 1830.
Since1830, the House has met behind closed doors only four times: in 1979, 1980, 1983,7
and 2008. Table 2 identifies the secret House sessions beginning in 1825.
5 In addition, on Jan. 8, 1999, the Senate Democratic and Republican Conferences held a rare
joint, secret meeting in the old Senate chamber to discuss the procedure for the pending
impeachment trial of the President, but this was not a formal, secret session of the Senate. See
Peter Baker and Helen Dewar, “Senate Votes Rules for President’s Trial; Proceedings to Begin
Next Week,” The Washington Post, Jan. 9, 1999, p. A1.
6 Prior to going into the first of the six closed-door deliberations during the impeachment trial of
President Clinton, the Senate agreed to a motion to allow any Senator to insert in the
Congressional Record, at the conclusion of the trial, his or her statements made in closed session
on the Articles of Impeachment. See “Motion Relating to Record of Proceedings Held in Closed
Session,” Congressional Record, vol. 145, Feb. 9, 1999, pp. 2054-2055.
7 On July 27, 1998, the House had a secret briefing from law enforcement officials in the House
chamber to receive information related to the shooting of two Capitol police officers on July 24,
1998. On Mar. 18, 1999, the House had another closed meeting to discuss “highly classified
material relating to the emerging ballistic missile threat to the U.S.” This meeting was not
considered a “secret session,” because it was conducted by a former Secretary of Defense who
was the chair of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. After
the meeting, the House convened to consider legislation to deploy a national missile defense. The
session was for Members only and was conducted at the “top secret classification level.” Source:
“Dear Colleague” letter from the Speaker of the House, dated Mar. 15, 1999, and conversations
with the Office of the House Parliamentarian. For the debate prior to the 2008 secret session,
Members and staff of both houses are prohibited from divulging information from
secret sessions, and all staff are required to sign an oath of secrecy. Violations of secrecy
are punishable by the disciplinary rules of a chamber. A Member may be subject to a
variety of punishments, including loss of seniority, fine, reprimand, censure, or expulsion.
An officer or employee may be dismissed or subject to other internal disciplinary actions.
The proceedings of a secret session are not published unless the relevant chamber
votes, during the meeting or at a later time, to release them. Then, those portions released
are printed in the Congressional Record.
If the House decides not to release the transcript of a secret session, the Speaker
refers the proceedings to the appropriate committee(s) for evaluation. The committees are
required to report to the House on their ultimate disposition of the transcript. If a
committee decides not to release the transcript, it becomes part of the committee’s
noncurrent records (pursuant to House Rule VII, clause 3) and is transferred to the clerk
of the House for transmittal to the Archivist of the United States at the National Archives
and Records Administration. Transcripts may be made available to the public after 30
years unless the Clerk of the House determines that such availability “would be
detrimental to the public interest or inconsistent with the rights and privileges of the
House” (Rule VII, clauses 3 and 4).
If the Senate does not approve release of a secret session transcript, the transcript is
stored in the Office of Senate Security and ultimately sent to the National Archives and
Records Administration. The proceedings remain sealed until the Senate votes to remove
the injunction of secrecy.
Table 1. Closed Senate Sessions Since 1929
DateReason for the Session
May 24, 1933Judge Harold Louderback impeachment trial deliberations
February 10, 1934Investigations of air and ocean mail contracts involving William
P. McCracken Jr. et al.
February 13-14, 1934Contempt proceedings against William P. McCracken Jr. et al.
April 15-16, 1936 Judge Halsted Ritter impeachment trial deliberations
June 26, 1942Naval policies on building battleships and aircraft carriers
October 7-8, 1943 Reports from the war fronts
April 11, 1963Nike-Zeus anti-missile program
July 14, 1966Resolution creating a Committee on Intelligence Operations;
security agency oversight
October 2, 1968Defense Department appropriations; anti-ballistic missile system
refer to Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 164, Mar. 13, 2008, pp. H1690-H1699. See also
Tim Starks, “House FISA Bill Picks Up Some Backers,” CQ Today, Mar. 14, 2008, pp. 1,20; and
Dana Milbank, “The Secret is Out: There Was No Big Secret,” The Washington Post, Mar. 14,
DateReason for the Session
July 17, 1969Military procurement authorizations; anti-ballistic missile system
December 15, 1969Defense Department appropriations
September 10, 1970Proposed legislative program for the second session of the 91st
December 18, 1970Discussion of certain legislation to be completed before the sinest
die adjournment of the 91 Congress
June 7, 1971United States involvement in Laos
May 2-4, 1972Discussion of the release of a classified National Security
Council memorandum (two sessions on May 2, 1972)
September 25, 1973Defense procurement authorization program; Trident submarine
June 10, 1974Defense procurement authorization; funds for the “counterforce”
June 4, 1975Military procurement authorization; U.S. strategic missiles
November 20, 1975Report from the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental
Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities; alleged
assassination plots involving foreign leaders
December 17-18, 1975Department of Defense appropriations; Angola
July 1, 1977Funding for neutron bombs
February 21-22, 1978Panama Canal treaties
May 15, 1978Proposed military aircraft sales to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia
September 21, 1979Mobilization of U.S. forces; military preparedness
February 1, 1980Armed forces personnel management legislation
May 4, 1982Defense Department authorizations; United States-USSR
February 16, 1983Nominations of Richard R. Burt and Richard T. McCormack to
be Assistant Secretaries of State
April 26, 1983Nicaragua
February 1, 1984President’s report to Congress on Soviet compliance with various
arms control agreements
June 12, 1984Omnibus defense authorizations; anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles
October 7-9, 1986Judge Harry Claiborne impeachment trial deliberations (two
closed sessions on October 7, 1986)
March 29, 1988Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Missiles Treaty (held in
the old Senate chamber)
March 16, 1989, and Judge Alcee Hastings impeachment trial deliberations
October 19, 1989
November 2, 1989Judge Walter Nixon impeachment trial deliberations
February 25, 1992Most-favored-nation status for China (held in old Senate
April 24, 1997Chemical Weapons Convention
DateReason for the Session
January 25-26, 1999Discussion of procedures for the impeachment trial of President
February 9-12, 1999President William Clinton impeachment trial deliberations
November 1, 2005Iraq war intelligence
Source: Senate Historical Office, Senate Library, and Robert C. Byrd, “Closed Sessions of the Senate Sincethst
1929,” in The Senate 1789-1992; vol. IV, Historical Statistics 1789-1992, S.Doc. 100-20, 100 Cong., 1
sess. (Washington: GPO, 1993), pp. 470-472.
Note: Prior to a 1929 rule change, executive sessions to consider treaties and nominations (executive
business of the Senate) were routinely held behind closed doors.
Table 2. Closed House Sessions Since 1812
DateReason for the Session
December 27, 1825To receive a confidential message from the President regardinga
relations with Indian tribes
May 27, 1830To receive a confidential message from the President on a billb
regulating trade between the U.S. and Great Britain
June 20, 1979Panama Canal Act of 1979; implementing legislation
February 25, 1980Cuban and other Communist-bloc countries involvement in
July 19, 1983U.S. support for paramilitary operations in Nicaragua
March 13, 2008Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and electronic
Sources: William Holmes Brown, “Consideration and Debate,” in House Practice, A Guide to the Rules,
Precedents, and Procedures of the House of Representatives (Washington: GPO, 2006), pp. 440-442;
“Closed House Session,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac 1979 (Washington: Congressional Quarterly,
Inc., 1980), p. 149; and “Closed House Session,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac 1980 (Washington:
Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1981), p. 334.
Notes: Prior to 1812, the House met frequently in closed session. Also, on Sept. 26, 2006, the House
defeated an attempt for a closed session to discuss Iraq war intelligence. See Congressional Record, daily
edition, vol. 152, Sept. 26, 2006, p. H7371. On May 10, 2007, the House rejected three attempts for a
closed session during the debate on the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008. See
Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 153, May 10, 2007, pp. H4795-4796, H4808, and H4867-H4868.
a. A. Hinds, Hind’s Precedents of the House of Representatives, vol. V (Washington: GPO, 1907), p. 1108.
b. “Secret Sitting,” Debates in Congress, vol. 51, May 28, 1830, p. 1139.