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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.
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.
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.”