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House debates surveillance bill in secret session

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  • Republican Roy Blunt calls for session to discuss classified information
  • Bush: Proposal may be good for trial lawyers; would be terrible for U.S. security
  • Proposal would allow lawsuits against phone companies, but with conditions
  • Bush wants House to pass Senate version, which received bipartisan majority
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives met in secret session Thursday night to debate revisions to federal surveillance laws, closing off the chamber for the first time since 1983 at the request of its Republican minority.

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President Bush says the proposal would "undermine America's security."

Rep. Roy Blunt, the House minority whip, asked for the closed session to use classified information to argue against a Democratic-backed overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"I did have some information that I thought would help the debate, that rose to the secret level that all of the members otherwise would not hear," said Blunt, R-Missouri.

Several Democrats raised concerns about the closed-door meeting but eventually agreed to the request. However, Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he would not stay for it.

"We ought to be proceeding with the utmost caution in going in this direction," said Kucinich, of Ohio, a former Democratic presidential candidate.

The nearly hour-long session took place late Thursday after a security sweep of the chamber. The House plans to hold an open debate on the Democratic bill at 10 a.m. Friday.

President Bush and his GOP allies have spent weeks pressuring the House to grant retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that took part in the administration's warrantless surveillance program after the September 11 attacks.

The Senate already has voted to protect the phone companies from lawsuits filed by privacy advocates, who argue that the surveillance program was illegal.

Bush argues that legal protection is needed for companies to continue cooperating with the government and has vowed to veto the House Democratic proposal, which would allow the lawsuits to move forward in federal courts.

Under the Democratic plan, the companies would be able to argue their cases and present classified evidence to a judge during a closed proceeding without the presence of the plaintiffs.

A joint statement from the Department of Justice and the office of the director of national intelligence said that based on initial reports, "We are concerned that the proposal would not provide the intelligence community the critical tools needed to protect the country."

The statement also restates the administration's position that immunity protection is needed so the program can continue.

"Exposing the private sector to continued litigation for assisting in efforts to defend the country understandably makes the private sector much more reluctant to cooperate. Without their cooperation, our efforts to protect the country cannot succeed," it said.

Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, warned Wednesday that the House proposal "would, in essence, shut us down" and sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a letter outlining his objections to the legislation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers took a different angle.

"We are not going to cave into a retroactive immunity situation," the Michigan Democrat said. "There's no law school example in our memory that gives retroactive immunity for something you don't know what you are giving it for. It just doesn't work in the real world or on the Hill either."

Bush called the plan "a partisan bill that would undermine America's security," and White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the Democratic bill "would hamstring the intelligence community." Video Watch Bush threaten to veto »

But Pelosi, D-California, shot back that "the president is wrong, and he knows it."

Pelosi said Republicans also called for a closed session of the Senate during its debate on the bill, a move she characterized as a delaying tactic.

"But again, if there is a merit to having a closed session that is worth pushing back consideration of the bill, let's hear what their purpose is," she said.

Secret sessions were common in the early 1800s, but the House has held only three since 1830, according to the Congressional Research Service. The last was in 1983, to discuss U.S. support for efforts to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua.

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Rep. David Obey, a veteran Wisconsin Democrat, said he took part in that session and the two previous ones, in 1979 and 1980.

"And I think the great utility of having another one, given the mumbo-jumbo I heard in the last three, is to demonstrate the almost total uselessness of secret sessions," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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