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Congress stares down a security scare

A report of gunfire. A lockdown. Then, back to debate. Just another day on Capitol Hill.

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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.

Show must go on

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.


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