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Inside story: Obama's nighthawks

On the Fourth of July, while most people were thinking about fireworks, cookouts, and sunscreen, The Washington Post ran a remarkable story about what the nation's top security officials are up to in the wee hours of the morning.

The story opens with an incredible scene: the hand off of the President's Daily Brief, the highly-classified briefing book, in the dead of night at an undisclosed location. What follows is a kind of tick-tock of the nocturnal doings of several top national security officials. I say "kind of" because while it reads a bit like an episode of "24," with sections demarcated by a time stamp, it was reported over 8 days and 5 mornings and pieced together into a single narrative. As a box that accompanies the story makes clear, the writer, Laura Blumenfeld, did not recreate scenes. She was there for every one.

When I asked Blumenfeld, a 19-year veteran of the Post, about the feedback she had gotten about the story, I was not at all surprised when she said she had heard from a lot of journalists, including many she didn't know. I figured, just like me, they wanted to know how she did it.

Here is what she said:

Her assignment is to write profiles of Obama Administration officials and to that end, she set her sights on CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Watching him at a congressional hearing, she was struck by a comment he made about how the possibility of an attack on the homeland keeps him up at night.

"That struck me as so human," she said. "It's not something you think about when you think of the war on terror."

Blumenfeld, a national enterprise reporter, tagged along during an interview with intelligence reporters and was allowed to ask one question. She asked whether his job really did keep him up at night. He said, "Damn right."

She quickly realized she would probably not be allowed to spend a full night with Panetta to see whether he was awakened by work or tossed fitfully in his sleep, so she came up with an alternative: weave his experience with those of other nighthawks.

That set in motion weeks of negotiations with no less than eight agencies, as well as the White House, for access to not only Panetta but also Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, National Counter-Terrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and ultimately, Vice President Biden and President Obama.

At first, everyone turned her down. But she kept at them until one of them agreed.

"One yes led to another," she said.

Letting a journalist witness the hand-off of the President's Daily Briefing was unprecedented. So was being in the room when officials gathered for the briefing in the Oval Office, which made for a humorous moment.

When she walked in with the national security officials and met Obama, "he looked puzzled," she said. Blumenfeld introduced herself and explained she was doing a story on administration officials working through the night. He said, "They do, just ask their spouses." Then, as he and the nine other men sat down to begin the top-secret brief, Obama said, "Until she leaves, we're talking about the Celtics." Blumenfeld left shortly thereafter.

She faced one other hurdle reporting the story: finding someone to watch her three children. Her husband was out of town for work on many of the nights she had to go out reporting. Neighbors pitched in, allowing her to go.

Blumenfeld said at times it felt as if the story could fall apart at any time if one of the key players refused to cooperate. But they did, largely because of her persistence.

"All along, I wouldn't take no for an answer," she said. "I wouldn't go away."

By Annys Shin  | July 7, 2010; 2:07 PM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, More on the story, The inside story  
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