WASHINGTON — When Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, picked up her phone in San Francisco on Saturday, CIA Director Leon Panetta was on the line, telling her something big was afoot.
"He spoke very cryptically," the California Democrat said of Panetta's Saturday phone call. "He said it was about a matter we had discussed, and I did not really know which one he was referring to."
The Saturday phone call was one step in the highly choreographed and often imperfect consultation between intelligence agencies and Congress. It followed secret briefings conducted over several years and preceded more explicit discussions to come.
On Sunday, about 5 p.m. West Coast time, Panetta called Feinstein again. This time, she answered on her BlackBerry. Osama bin Laden, Panetta told her, was dead. He filled her in on some operational details.
Several hours later, at a memorial service at a beachside house in Santa Monica for the late Democratic political consultant Kam Kuwata, Feinstein broke the news.
"I have something all of you should know," Feinstein told several hundred people, recalled one individual present at the off-the-record event. "The president of the United States is going to tell the nation that Osama Bin Laden has been killed in a Navy SEAL operation in Pakistan."
Audience members applauded exuberantly.
Feinstein's report beat Obama's nationally televised speech to the punch; there is some question about the timing of when the president was supposed to speak. Still, Feinstein and other intelligence committee members revealed Monday that they had been keeping secret what the CIA had been telling them for weeks, months or even longer about a mysterious compound that turned out to house bin Laden.
"We have been briefed for some time about the compound," Feinstein said, "and the fact that none of it leaked is very special."
Spies like to keep information in tight compartments. On Capitol Hill, that sometimes means only eight top House and Senate members are shown the most dangerous secrets. It also sometimes frustrates lawmakers, who say they can occasionally learn more from CNN than from a top-secret briefing.
House intelligence committee member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, had just returned to Washington from California on Sunday. He was tired and ready for bed when the news arrived the old-fashioned way.
"My wife turned on the radio, and there it was," Schiff said in an interview.
Schiff then turned on his BlackBerry and discovered that it had been "burning up" with messages about bin Laden.
Moving forward, the House and Senate intelligence committee members will be closely monitoring the consequences of bin Laden's death.
"It's a good thing for the country," said Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, chair of the House intelligence panel, but "there are a lot of issues that we're going to have to have conversations about to make sure the nation's national security interests are met."
Late Monday afternoon, Rogers convened his House panel for a closed-door briefing. Feinstein was to do the same for her Senate panel Tuesday, with presentations expected by Panetta and the head of the military's Joint Special Operations Command.
Schiff and Feinstein both say they want the future hearings to examine key questions, including how bin Laden could live comfortably within Pakistan for so many years.
"What do we know about what the Pakistanis knew?" Schiff said. "That will be a top interest."
Feinstein added that "it's hard for me to understand how the Pakistanis ... would not know what was going on inside the compound." Pointedly, Feinstein suggested that top Pakistan officials may be "walking both sides of the street."
Key lawmakers, moreover, had already gained hints earlier this year that U.S. intelligence officers were closing in. One early briefing about the threads of evidence occurred in January at CIA headquarters in Virginia.
"They clearly knew that someone important was using this facility in the furtherance of terrorist activities around the world," Rogers said Monday at a news conference, "but just weren't sure what the target was."
Lawmakers learned, over time, that the bin Laden compound was lacking in the kind of communication signals that are both commonplace in a big city and prone to interception. The signals' absence, Schiff said, made the compound stand out as much as an utterly dark house amid noisy Las Vegas.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011