Of Leaks and Lockdowns
Saturday, May 27, 2006
The media are locked out of most House intelligence committee meetings. Yesterday we were locked in.
Barely 45 minutes into a rare open-door session, a panel of lawyers and media experts was testifying on the subject of press leaks when a staffer handed Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) a BlackBerry. Hoekstra squinted at the tiny screen and casually passed the device to Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat. As testimony continued, the BlackBerry made its way from member to member.
It was perhaps a comment on our times that none of the elected officials gasped, gulped or even raised an eyebrow. At 10:46 a.m., Hoekstra shared the information with the rest of us in Room 2118 of the Rayburn House Office Building.
"It's a little unsettling to get a BlackBerry message saying there's gunfire in the building," he said, not looking unsettled at all. "I've asked the Capitol Police to come and guard the doors." No one would be allowed to enter or exit.
Outside, unbeknown to us, Capitol and Metropolitan police and heavily armed FBI teams were converging on the white marble building, shutting down surrounding streets and shooing away tourists. Inside, the hearing continued without so much as a hiccup. No one paid much attention to the jingling alarm bells, the occasional muffled shout or the sound of heavy boots along the corridor.
Instead, members argued over whether the nation needed stronger laws to prevent and punish the publication of classified information. The four witnesses -- two on each side of the issue -- debated the sanctity of secrecy and the importance of a free press. Everyone cited the Constitution.
At 11:20 Hoekstra offered an update: "They are now sweeping the parking garage," he said as if announcing the next hearing date. The police, he said, would move to the top of the building and work their way down, searching every room.
Around the chamber, people pulled out their own BlackBerrys and learned that staffers had been told to retreat to their offices and listen for a secret knock, followed by a codeword -- "baseball" -- before returning a signal that there were people inside.
With that, it was back to work.
Does publishing classified information amount to civil disobedience? Who will be left to protect the public interest if the press is muzzled?
At 12:20, Hoekstra announced, "The hearing will be adjourned, but we're not going anywhere."
For the media, this was an unprecedented opportunity. Some of the most secretive members of Congress were our fellow captives. Protocol quickly fell by the wayside.