The dead zone

Reporters wait around in Washington's crypt for something -- anything -- to leak out from closed congressional hearings into 9/11 intelligence failures.

By Anthony York
Published June 5, 2002 10:49PM (EDT)

It's 1 p.m. and reporters are beginning to gather in the House crypt. This room, directly beneath the Capitol rotunda, was supposed to be George Washington's final resting place, until his nephew refused to allow Washington's body to be moved from its Mount Vernon grave. Lucky for Washington; Tuesday, he would just have been in the way.

Reporters are gathered in the crypt because it is as close as we are going to get to the room where the House and Senate intelligence committees are holding their first hearing about the intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. Upstairs is the room we're not supposed to see, where members of the Intelligence Committee are having discussions we're not supposed to hear. Instead, we are all waiting in the crypt, begging for scraps.

Through the crypt is the entrance to the only elevator, which leads to the Capitol's restricted fourth floor, where reporters are generally not allowed without a congressional escort. Reporters are here hoping to catch an image or maybe steal a quick sound bite from one of the members of the committee as they head upstairs. Though the hearing is not set to begin until 2:30, by 1:10 there are eight television cameras set up near the elevator, jockeying for position. They are trained on a makeshift podium adorned with 12 microphones, as more than 30 photographers and cameramen mill about waiting for somebody important, or sort of interesting, heck, anyone with a pulse to try to get in that elevator.

The closed-door Intelligence Committee hearings will continue for more than three weeks, until FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet come before an open session of the committee at the end of the month. Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to have an open hearing -- what's being billed as the hearing of the season, featuring both Mueller and Minnesota FBI agent Coleen Rowley, author of the now-famous 13-page letter lashing out at her boss. Thursday's hearing promises to be a full-blown media circus. Tuesday's stakeout is merely a warmup.

The crypt has been transformed into a makeshift fashion show runway, Capitol Hill style. Of course the "models" strutting by are intelligence committee staffers, maybe an occasional member of the committee. The cameras wait hungrily, itchy trigger fingers hovering shakily over shutter releases.

Typical highway car wreck psychology looms large at the stakeout. Gene Woods, on vacation from Gainesville, Fla., breaks from a growing group of tourists who are watching the press watching nothing. Woods wanders over and asks what all the excitement is about. While a reporter explains about the meeting of the intelligence committee, Woods is interrupted by a girl missing her two front teeth. "Are you a senator?" she asks, autograph book at the ready.

Meanwhile, the reporter is mildly scolded by a Capitol police officer. "The less information you can tell the tourists, the better," the officer says. "Otherwise, you're just going to get more of them hanging around."

Guided tours pass through, the screams of schoolchildren echoing off the stone floors and arched ceilings. Suddenly, there's action. Someone is coming toward the elevator. Photographers rush to their mark, and start clicking away with reckless abandon. Two aides carting white binders and legal boxes full of documents get caught in the crossfire. Obviously the attention is unwanted, and the aides hurry toward the elevator as flashbulbs pop.

By 1:35 some of the photographers are starting to shake from nicotine withdrawal. A pack of nicotine gum makes its way through the group, and many of them eagerly pop a square out of its foil pouch. Those who aren't nic-fitting are bored, and when photographers get bored, they get mean. As a young TV reporter fastens a microphone to the podium, a pair of photographers start to scream.

"Behind you! Out of the way! Down in front!"

It is a sort of hazing to punish the latecomer, making him believe that someone important is coming and he is in the way of the shot. The rattled television reporter runs away from the podium in full sprint, letting up well after he realizes he's been had. The veterans all laugh, as the humbled and embarrassed reporter quietly takes his place in the pack, his face some shade between crimson and scarlet.

More action! A man pulling a cart full of 14 five-gallon water bottles makes his way to the elevator. Paparazzi go crazy. The shiny bronzed doors of the elevator open, swallowing the man and his water bottles as they shut. Flash lights bounce off the closing doors.

At 2:06 p.m., House Intelligence Committee member Jane Harman, D-Calif., walks by. She smiles for the cameras, never breaking stride, and makes her way to the elevator. Moments later, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, takes one look at the media swarm and pulls a quick U-turn, opting to take another way up to the hearing room.

The stakeout at the crypt is one of at least three currently underway in the Capitol. Upstairs, the Senate is heading back into session, and about 40 print reporters have their pads and pens out, waiting for the right senator to walk by. Seven of them cornered Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., asking him about the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of new FBI regulations announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft last week.

Around the corner, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., is holding court before about 80 print, radio and television reporters. It is a wide-ranging press conference touching on everything from stem cell research to fast-track trade legislation. Eventually, the questions begin to focus on the big news of the day -- the hearing on the fourth floor, and Daschle seizes the moment to renew his call for an independent commission to look into the Sept. 11 attacks.

By 3 p.m., the reporters in the crypt have all scattered. Only the cameras remain, unmanned, ready to catch the members of the Intelligence Committee when their meeting ends at 6 p.m. Some time after 5, the pack begins to reconfigure. Minutes before 6, the four leading members of the committee -- Pelosi, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla. -- appear at the podium together, having clearly agreed to call this meeting a "business meeting" -- the phrase is repeated by all four ranking committee members -- and to herald the spirit of bipartisanship that surrounded the joint committee's first meeting.

The committee releases a short, two-page statement outlining the scope of the inquiry, focusing on all of the basic questions -- who knew what and when, and how can we prevent it from happening again.

"Substantive work did not happen today," says Pelosi. "We have made no news."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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