Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is the ranking member of the House… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger picked up his phone Saturday and found himself in a conversation right out of a spy novel. The line was not secure, so CIA Director Leon Panetta chose his words carefully.
"You know that other thing we know about?" Ruppersberger recalled Panetta saying. "We're getting very, very close."
Within hours, U.S. special forces raided a compound in Pakistan and killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. As one of eight lawmakers briefed on the nation's most secret intelligence operations, Ruppersberger had followed the mission for weeks.
"It had to be very, very classified and confidential," Ruppersberger said in an interview this week as Washington and the world began to process the impact of what was arguably the biggest turn in the nation's war against terror since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "We couldn't afford any leaks whatsoever."
As ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — the most senior legislator from the minority party on the panel — the Baltimore County Democrat is one of just a few lawmakers privy to such secrets, a source of merriment among those back home who know the longtime politician as a chatterbox.
But keeping secrets has become habitual for Ruppersberger, who has served on the committee since he was elected to Congress in 2002, and in fact it doesn't seem to have cramped his style. Rather, it's given him some new material to contrast against his classic Baltimore background, marveling at how a former Ocean City lifeguard and City College lacrosse player now finds himself on the streets of Baghdad or in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
"I've had to dress up like an Arab," Ruppersberger said. "You've got to go to the front lines."
When he was first briefed on the new bin Laden lead in March, he says, the tip felt more firm than many others that intelligence officials had chased down over the past decade. Panetta had briefed him "on and off" since then, he said.
"When it looked like it was for real, there was a lot of training that occurred," he said. "They had to make sure that they knew where Osama was staying and sleeping, how much he had in terms of protection, firepower and women and children. It took a lot of work."
Ruppersberger said intelligence officials also were keenly aware that conspiracy theorists would challenge any claim that the United States had found bin Laden, and indeed, some are questioning whether the decision to bury bin Laden's body at sea shortly after the operation indicates that the military killed the wrong man.
U.S. officials say they obtained a DNA match of the body to bin Laden as well as photos of him after he was shot. They have not yet decided whether to release those pictures.
"We knew … if we did kill him, or capture him, we had to prove he was the person," Ruppersberger said.
While acknowledging the successful mission to kill bin Laden, Ruppersberger says terrorism remains a threat to the United States.
"I'm concerned about some sort of retaliation," he said. "I think it's going to happen because al-Qaida — they lost their leader. Their morale has to be very low at this point."
But, he added, "we have really good intelligence, [and] we're going to be on guard throughout the world and in the United States."
He is particularly concerned about Anwar al-Awlaki. The 40-year-old cleric was born in New Mexico, studied at George Washington University and served as an imam in Northern Virginia before relocating to Yemen, where he is reportedly inspiring, recruiting and training Islamist radicals to attack the United States.
The so-called "bin Laden of the Internet" is said to have helped inspire Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, alleged Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and convicted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. President Barack Obama has authorized his targeted killing.
"He has been very active in recruiting to his philosophy to attack America. "He's smart, and he's a great concern," said Ruppersberger, who visited Yemen — "probably the most dangerous place for us right now" — during the congressional recess last month.
Ruppersberger has had a secure telephone line installed in his home since rising to ranking member of the intelligence committee in January. He was summoned to the White House situation room for two presidential briefings in March about the impending NATO strike on Libya. The map in his district office in Timonium that tracks his world travels has grown increasingly crowded with gold stickers.
But even as Ruppersberger embraces his new role, he says he still taps into his experience as a Baltimore County officeholder as he deals with terrorism, cyber-security and other issues of a more global reach.
"I come from local government," the one-time prosecutor, county councilman and county executive said. "I almost think that should be a requirement for federal office."