By Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
The members-only room behind the chamber -- off-limits in normal times -- was opened. Hoekstra offered use of the members' bathroom. Coffee, sodas, a few prized muffins and a big bag of potato chips were quickly downed.
We stood fascinated in front of the television. To us, the coverage looked like a disaster movie. Inside, we were bonding.
As reporters ran out of questions and cellphone batteries went dead, conversation turned to families and plans for the Memorial Day weekend -- if we ever got out.
We turned to Hoekstra for the inside scoop. We had heard reports of faulty pipes, car backfires and an exploding air-conditioning unit. "I have no confirmation of gunfire," he said with a grin. "I have confirmation of a loud noise."
Most of the members had ducked out. But Hoekstra declared that leaving us behind would not be "good form." Texan Republican Mac Thornberry had two other concerns -- a pair of young interns following him around for the day. "Their mothers would not forgive me if I left them behind," he said.
A lawyer started a betting pool on when we would be released. There was talk of "I survived the Rayburn lockdown" T-shirts. Wire reporters calmly sat on the thick blue carpet, typing and transmitting their stories. Reporters, panelists and lobbyists sprawled in the members' big black armchairs.
The small space in front of C-SPAN's live pool camera, standing at the side of the room, became the set for eyewitness reports being beamed around the world.
Panel witness Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and former chairman of CNN, handed Hoekstra his cellphone earplug so he could do a stand-up for CNN. Lawyer Jonathan Turley, a frequent media commentator, admitted on MSNBC that he had a hidden cache of muffins.
At 1:30, a burly, black-clad Capitol Police officer walked in to announce that the search party would soon reach us. When they did, he warned, they would come in armed and yelling. Everyone should remain calm and do what they were told. "They won't be as nice as I am," he said.
Forty minutes went by. All muffins were gone. The officer returned and asked the three remaining representatives whether any of them was carrying a weapon. They looked taken aback. All replied no.
At 2:30, a man in civilian clothes began to unlock the doors.
A black-clad, automatic-weapons-wielding FBI team burst into the room. "HANDS ON YOUR HEADS! HANDS ON YOUR HEADS!" Now we were worried.
"Is there anyone here who doesn't belong here?" one FBI agent shouted inexplicably.
"Now that's a weird question," someone mumbled.
We got in line and strained to keep our arms up.
"Do I dare pick up my briefcase?" Isaacson whispered.
Hoekstra joked under his breath: "You should see what they make us do for closed hearings."
We headed down the hallway, hands on our heads, and silently passed through a metal detector. As one reporter cleared the last obstacle to freedom, she looked at a FBI team member, his blue eyes locked in a steely stare, his finger on the trigger.
He broke into a smile. "Have a nice day," he said.