The New York Times reported today on a Senate floor speech by Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) in which he criticized the CIA's actions on torture and mentioned a secret internal report. The article goes on:

Republicans carefully reviewed Mr. Udall’s floor speech to see if he divulged secret information, and came to the conclusion he had not. Given earlier comments that he was willing to read the Senate report on the floor if it was not made public, Republicans said they were also prepared to thwart him on that front.

“We were ready,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee. “I was prepared to go to the floor and take him on if he started to release classified information. But I really thought at the end of the day he would not want that to be his legacy.”

What could Senator Chambliss and other Republicans have done?

The US Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause generally protects members of Congress from prosecution for anything they say as part of congressional debate or business. A famous precendent is the case of Senator Mike Gravel, who in 1971 read the classified Pentagon Papers into the record of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds. And I had understood that Senate rules generally let a senator speak for as long as he or she wants (which is why the filibuster works), so would the Republicans have had a way to cut off Udall's speech?

  • 3
    There is the Preston Brooks method.
    – Tyler
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 23:39
  • What part of revealing classified documents doesn't sound like treason to you? I would as assume they could ask the Sergeant of Arms to arrest the traitor. "shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their attendance at the Session of their Respective Houses, and in going to and from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place."
    – user1873
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 0:14
  • 1
    @user1873 "except Treason" controls "be privileged from Arrest", not "for any Speech or Debate...shall not be questioned in any other Place". There are absolutely no exceptions to immunity from prosecution for things said on the floor of the Senate.
    – cpast
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 0:16
  • 1
    @user1873: Article III Section 3: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort." It's not clear that merely revealing classified information qualifies, and I'm not aware of anyone ever having been convicted of treason on that basis. You might be able to argue felony, though. Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 0:25
  • 1
    @Tyler - there's also the Aaron Burr method
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 20:53

2 Answers 2


Any Senator can move for the Senate to go into closed session; as soon as the motion is seconded, and until a majority votes to resume public debate, the galleries are cleared, the doors are locked, and guards are posted to keep the public out. Anything said during a closed session is in the Congressional Record, but is kept under seal until such time as the Senate decides to release it.

Any Senator who discloses information from a closed session is subject to punishment by the Senate, including censure or even expulsion in extreme cases (the Speech and Debate clause prevents other branches from punishing Senators for their legislative acts; it does not prevent the Senate from disciplining its own members for their actions). Anyone besides a Senator can be subject to criminal prosecution for contempt of Congress if they do the same.

  • Aha, I didn't know about the closed session rule. Of course, the Republicans would have to hope they could convince the Democratic majority not to immediately vote to return to open session. Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 0:37
  • 2
    The Senate tends to take this sort of thing (both classified information and prerogatives of Senators) very seriously; while the majority might vote to return to open session, they'd be unlikely to do it as an automatic reaction.
    – cpast
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 1:28
  • 8
    Can the motion to go to closed session interrupt a speaking Senator? This implies it can, but I'd like to have that explicitly confirmed.
    – Bobson
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 15:17
  • wouldn't they still be immune if they read the information into open record?
    – grovkin
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 0:33

I don't have enough reputation on this board to leave comments, but I wanted to give more detail on the motions, based on Bobson's comment.

Can the motion to go to closed session interrupt a speaking Senator? This implies it can, but I'd like to have that explicitly confirmed.

Generally, a motion can not be made while another motion is being considered. There are some exceptions, but moving to closed session is not one of them.

However, a motion could be made to post-pone the Senator's discussion until the committee considers moving to closed session. A motion to post-pone is allowed (and only possible) when another motion is being considered.

If they were debating (and no motion was on the table), the Senate's rules of debate prohibit anyone from interrupting. Even so, the Republicans would have had several informal options.

For example, if he had managed to read the torture report, he might have found that his alloted time in intelligence committee meetings was somehow always very last on the list of items to be discussed- meaning that he would effectively never have a chance to present his business.

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