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."
These days, he's reviewing the budgets and overseeing programs not of the parks and recreation or police departments but of 16 intelligence agencies. Rather than interviewing and investigating criminal suspects, he's on fact-finding missions to Afghanistan or Mexico.
Ruppersberger developed a reputation in Maryland as a consensus-builder, known for uniting local factions of sprawling Baltimore County to get huge appropriations out of the legislature for schools, and he's nurturing a similar image in Washington as well. At a time of heightened fractiousness on Capitol Hill, he says the intelligence committee could serve as a model for bipartisan cooperation.
"The stakes are just too high to be political," he said of the committee's work.
He and committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, both say they have a good, often joking relationship and share the belief that partisan politics must be left at the door of their secure meeting room.
"One of the things Dutch and I have done wherever we can is to be bipartisan, if not nonpartisan, to show and set an example," Rogers said. "We travel together jointly. This is unusual. It hasn't happened since I've been on the committee. This is something we thought was important."
The togetherness extends to sitting together when called to the White House situation room for briefings on Libya, which Rogers is quick to note meant "we weren't so much consulted as informed." They have bonded a bit over their shared law enforcement background — Rogers as an FBI agent, Ruppersberger as an assistant state's attorney — which they say has proved useful when they now conduct interviews and investigations.
"We joke, 'Now, you've got a prosecutor and an FBI agent asking you questions," Rogers said. "He's a great guy."
They acknowledge they have their differences: There was a recent flare-up over the intelligence authorization bill, for example. While there may be more partisan difficulties down the road, observers say they appear to be off to good start in a difficult climate.
"Ruppersberger and Rogers seem to have a good personal relationship," said Eric Rosenbach, a former staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee who now teaches courses in counterterrorism and cyber-security at the Harvard Kennedy School. "They seem to have transcended partisan politics."
Rosenbach, the co-author of "Confrontation or Collaboration? Congress and the Intelligence Community," said the relationship should benefit a committee that in recent years splintered over domestic surveillance, interrogation techniques and Guantanamo detentions, among other issues.
"Historically, it's been a nonpartisan committee," Rosenbach said. And until 9/11 pushed national security into the spotlight, the House or Senate panels were not highly coveted assignments — the secrecy under which members operate prevents them from touting their accomplishments openly, and work on the committee isn't ordinarily helpful to lawmakers looking to bring funding home to their districts.
It's a little different, though, in Maryland or Virginia, Rosenbach said, because of the number of intelligence agencies that are based in the region.
Ruppersberger's district, which includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties, is home to the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, both at Fort Meade, as well as Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Port of Baltimore.
"I deal with international issues, but you never can forget to represent your district," he said.
The nationwide military base realignment that will bring tens of thousands of new residents and jobs to the state keeps Ruppersberger in regular contract with counties and municipalities that are bracing for the impact of growth on their roads, schools and other infrastructure.
"He knows what county executives go through," said David Craig, the Harford County executive. A Republican, Craig said that while he and Ruppersberger may have other political differences, they see eye-to-eye somewhere in the neighborhood of Ivory soap's purity level — as in, 99 and 44/100 percent — on the base realignment, known as BRAC.
They have their own division of labor when they have to rally support for BRAC-related initiatives, Craig said.
"When it comes to issues where we have to convince others," Craig said, "he'll take the Democrats and I'll take the Republicans."
In the Republican House, Ruppersberger doesn't have the luxury of dealing only with his own party. He says he accepts that the American people spoke last November, and Democrats have to shoulder some of the blame for losing the House majority.
"Health care, we needed to reform that. But we did too much too soon," Ruppersberger said. "That's one of the reasons Democrats lost the House."
He says his party lost control of the message, allowing opponents of health care reform to spread misinformation.
As budget cutting now dominates congressional debate, Ruppersberger said the intelligence agencies will have to bear some of the spending cuts. He favors targeting specific programs that can be pared while protecting others that would be too severely damaged by a loss of funds.
"We have to find programs that work. The issue of the deficit, it makes us weaker as a country," Ruppersberger said. "I use my experience as a county executive. There are ways to cut — it's not by cutting a percentage. We have to prioritize. We have to review the programs. You have to make sure you don't put the U.S. in a weaker position against our enemies."