Congress stares down a security scare
A report of gunfire. A lockdown. Then, back to debate. Just another day on Capitol Hill.
When Capitol Police responding to a report of gunfire tell you to lock yourself in your office - but you don't have one - duck into the first open door you find. For me, that meant heading into a rare public hearing by the House intelligence committee.
So began nearly five hours locked down with the most secretive committee on Capitol Hill.
Reports of gunfire in the vast Rayburn House Office Building turned out to be random construction noise, but no knew that at 10:30 a.m. last Friday, when officers shut down the area for a security sweep. Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan first heard about it when a staffer passed him a wireless message.
"It's a little unsettling to get a BlackBerry message saying there's gunfire in the building," he told the hearing on national security press leaks. But if he or any other lawmakers in room 2118 were worried, it didn't show. Not yet.
Expert witnesses didn't miss a beat.
There are limits that the press should not be permitted to cross with impunity, such as "recklessly publishing vital counterterrorism secrets in wartime," said Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary magazine, who continued testifying after the chairman's announcement.
Yes, but "one of the reasons I think these leaks are occurring [is] because there is zero faith in the oversight of Congress," shot back Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington.
"Leaks can get people killed, and leaks can compromise critical [anti]terrorist capability," added Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel. "But on the other hand, if we aren't overseeing this, and if there's overclassification and no outlets for people, we promote a climate that may, in the end, not be optimum."
In 2001, there were 8.7 million classification decisions, noted Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey. Three years later, it was almost twice as many: 15.6 million.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan wondered if journalists who report government secrets to win prizes aren't like Martha Stewart, who "went to jail for having the benefit of insider information." And so on.
By 12:20 p.m., the chairman adjourned the hearing, but added: "We're not going anywhere." We were locked down.
With the thump of his gavel, BlackBerrys - ubiquitous on Capitol Hill ever since the 9/11 attacks - surfaced all over the committee room. Members checked their reservations for flights back home. Staff tapped out messages back and forth to their colleagues locked down upstairs. People called their families, many unaware that families were watching the scene in the conference room live from C-SPAN's camera.
A word about the Rayburn building: Completed in 1965, the vast marble and granite complex - once dubbed by an architectural survey as a "bombastic ... expression of raw, arrogant and uncontrolled power" - includes four floors above ground, two basements, three parking garage levels, two gyms, and a shooting range (for law enforcement). In all, it's about 50 acres, or 2.4 million square feet. It's easy to get lost in, not so quick to search.
As minutes became hours - and BlackBerrys and cellphones lost power - people talked. Witnesses who had taken bookend positions on the issue chatted and joked. So did reporters and lawmakers who had earlier accused them of placing the nation's intelligence assets at risk by publishing government secrets.
At the same time, one by one, most members of Congress - and no one else - found police escorts out of the lockdown. Holding down the fort, Chairman Hoekstra said he felt it was right to stay.
Better still, he invited panelists, reporters, lawyers, and staff to use the back rooms, usually off limits to all but members and their staff. "There are muffins back there," reported Professor Turley, who also announced the news to the world via a live C-SPAN camera in the committee room.
Some of us never saw the muffins, but there was juice, water, cans of soda, deep leather chairs, and a TV set carrying coverage of the search. The broadcast hit static just as a FOX News announcer mentioned something about a Rayburn staffer being carried out in a gurney after a "panic attack" during the FBI search.
Not long after, a Capitol Police officer warned us about the same thing. Don't be alarmed when the FBI team comes in, he said. "They won't be as nice as I am."
Sure enough, about half an hour later, the search team rushed through a door with M-4 assault rifles, Kevlar helmets with goggles, bullet-proof vests, and lots of pockets and straps. "Hands on your heads! Hands on your heads!" they yelled. Then shouted: "Anyone have any medical emergency?" "Not until you guys came in," someone muttered.
"You should see what we do in our closed hearings," quipped Hoekstra, as we were led out through metal detectors.
"Have a nice day," said the FBI officer by the front door, as the last of us exited the building.