An executive session is any meeting conducted by a governing body to discuss issues brought to the organization by an executive authority. Most commonly, this is associated with the activities of the United States Senate, but any governing body holding closed-door committee meetings are said to be taking part in an executive session. This can include those in charge of business or nonprofit ventures as well.
According to tradition, the President of the United States introduces certain items of importance that need to be addressed by the legislative branch. Since the President has no right to make laws and relies on this body to approve nominations to certain posts as well as approve treaties, committees need to address the issues in conversation. In the past, these meetings were held without public scrutiny. This has changed dramatically in modern times, however, with the utilization of executive session meetings being held during regular Senate discussions. Essentially, anything having to do with details of the activities or needs of the executive branch are considered an executive session.
The concept of having closed-door committee meetings stems from the Latin term in camera. This was traditionally used as a way for courts to discuss matters regarding a case without a public record. Judges often use this right to meet with attorneys to determine admissibility of evidence or general concerns over procedure.
The idea was adopted early in the days of the United States government as a way to ensure national security. Certain privileged information sometimes needs to be shared between the branches in the interest of checks and balances. If the executive branch fails to share details about operations or state secrets, the legislature, with the power of the purse, can decide to cut off funding. In order to prevent this, the executive branch gives the information to the Congress with the condition that it is not given out to the public. For example, in times of war, the president has certain executive authority regarding detentions or prosecution of combat that would endanger national security if the enemy was to learn of the activities.
In the private sector, executive sessions are also held behind closed doors to discuss relevant financial data or company policies that it does not wish to divulge to competition or the press. While this information is usually legally bound to eventually be revealed to company shareholders, these closed-door committee meetings ensure privacy for the company or nonprofit while decisions are made. Like government bodies, much of the information shared in these meetings helps ensure details between branches are discussed.