Politics

Bin Laden’s Death: Coming Full Circle

For me, it started when I was in bed. So it's only appropriate that it would end when I was in bed, too.

At 9:36 am on September 11, 2001, I was asleep in bed at my home in Alexandria, VA, just across the river from Washington, DC.

I was awake at 9:37 am.

I have never quite found the right words to describe the sound that woke me that morning. Words like "explosion," or "blast," or "cannonade" were too scrawny to capture the dimension and size of the sound that rousted me from sleep.

Fabled music producer Phil Spector often spoke of creating a "wall of sound" when cutting a record in the studio. The sound that morning was like a wall. It was dense, reverberant noise so loud and so powerful that it shook the house, rattled the windows and clanged the dishes.

Hampton, my Welsh Corgi with gigantic ears who can often detect a truck rumbling by two blocks away, began to bay. For this wasn't anything that he had ever heard either.

The noise remains the biggest sound I have ever heard.

Still in a stupor, I had no idea what it was.

In 2001, I worked for NPR and had pulled a late shift the night before. I had a Tae Kwon Do class booked at 11:30 am and had to be at work at 1 pm. So I shut off all of the phones and had set the alarm for 10:30. I lugged myself out of bed, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, fed Hampton and sauntered outside into one of the of the most-brilliant September mornings I've ever witnessed.

I didn't quite understand what could generate a sound like that. My first thought was that a electrical transformer blew nearby. That could explain the sound, not the shaking. We get occasional earthquakes in Virginia. But that didn't explain the sound. I also wondered if a tree had fallen on the house. I scooped the Washington Post off the driveway and walked around the perimeter of the house just to make sure the structure was okay.

So I figured that whatever it was, the sound must not have been big a deal. And it certainly couldn't pierce the serenity of such a beautiful morning.

I poured a bowl of Wheaties and decided to eat breakfast on the patio out back. The morning was too radiant to miss.

But the sound itched at me. What was that noise I heard upstairs in bed?

Finally just before 11, I went back inside and logged onto the computer to check the score of the Cincinnati Reds from the previous night. From southwest Ohio, I've followed the Reds religiously since the days of the Big Red Machine. They had played a night game in Chicago against the Cubs. And even though the Reds were lousy that year, I still dialed up the Cincinnati Enquirer website every morning to read about them.

I never made it to the sports page.

A headline on the Enquirer's webpage explained the sound that woke me at 9:37 am.

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I was spent on the night of May 1, 2011. And I really wanted to go to bed. It's only appropriate that my discipleship of professional athletics brought full circle the bedlam that summoned me from sleep nearly a decade earlier.

The only thing that kept me from going to bed that night was game two of the NHL's Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. Washington trailed 3-2 late in the third period. And with just over a minute to play in regulation, the legendary Alexander Ovechkin set up in front of the crease and flicked a wrist shot past Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson to send the game into overtime.

Had it not been for Ovechkin, I would have gone to bed.

But bed is exactly where I found myself a few minutes later. Not seeking sleep. But seeking confirmation on the story of the year.

While watching the hockey game, I noticed several emails from our White House unit and the White House "pool" (all news organizations "pool" their resources to help cover the White House. Sometimes one organization is responsible for shooting the video. Another is charged with transmitting and distributing the pictures). The White House announced it was removing the "lid" for the day. Usually the White House press team puts on a "lid" when there are no more opportunities to shoot video of the president or there is no more news to gather. Sometimes the White House just announces a "photo lid," meaning the administration may still release statements.

But this was different. First of all, it was pushing 10 pm on a Sunday. And then came word that the president himself would speak at 10:30. This was extraordinary. I pinged a few of members of our White House team to see if they knew what this was about.

No one had a clue.

So I swung into action.

CBS's Bob Schieffer put it best in his 2004 book "This Just In." Schieffer started his career covering local government in Texas. Schieffer always said the best stories about the country commissioners came from the sheriff's department. And vice versa.

And in Washington, the best stories about the White House always come from Capitol Hill. That meant there was a good chance that if the president was going to address the nation at 10:30, something big was about to go down. The chances were high Mr. Obama had briefed the Congressional leadership.

The Lightning beat the Capitals in overtime. And I headed upstairs to my bedroom and fired up my laptop. I do a lot of work at home sitting in my bed, pecking away at the laptop. It's the same bed in the same place in the room where I was awakened on 9/11.

I immediately blanketed Capitol Hill sources with emails and phone calls. Few had any clue what was up. I began processing scenarios in my head. Libya? Khadafy? Did something happen to Biden and there was a presidential succession issue?

I recalled a disturbing press conference in October, 2001, where FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft cryptically warned the nation about the potential of pending terrorist attacks. We learned later that U.S. intelligence thought al Qaida may have deposited a ten kiloton nuclear weapon somewhere in New York City.

I expanded my news dragnet to friends in the intelligence and defense communities. It quickly became clear the president's impromptu address dealt with national security. Possibly a terrorist threat. Or maybe something catastrophic had already happened.

And then I got word from someone that bin Laden was dead.

When I relayed this story to friend a few days ago, she asked me if that's when I reported it.

I told her no. The stakes were too high. It was too easy to be wrong on a story of this magnitude. And I've been around the block before reporting on people who weren't dead yet. Look under Hope, Bob and Tubbs Jones, Stephanie sometime.

"Two sources" is the rule in journalism. But sometimes it's a "gut" thing. Sometimes you want to make sure that your sources aren't all getting their information from the same place and you want to corroborate it somewhere else. And in my mind, the bar to confirm that bin Laden was dead was much higher than most garden variety stories.

A reporting friend of mine from CBS, Jill Jackson, tweeted that bin Laden was dead. And I still didn't feel like I had confirmed it.

Then, nearly simultaneously, two credible sources reached out. One said they expected the president to announce that Osama bin Laden was dead. The other source gave me irrefutable evidence that someone near the top was making it clear that bin Laden had been killed.

That was the green light.

And at 10:39 pm, from my laptop in bed, I sent the following message across all news platforms at Fox:

Urgent: Confirmed bin Laden dead Per Pergram-Capitol Hill

Multiple sources bin Laden dead

Geraldo Rivera read the message on the air a minute later.

The story that originated when I was asleep in my bed in 2001 culminated in reporting the death of bin Laden while sitting in bed in 2011.

My bed can be a dangerous place.

I've confirmed the deaths of at least two other figures while hammering away on my laptop in bed.

Such was the case with Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) in February, 2010.

And two days later, I confirmed the death of Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-TX), now a household name after the book and movie "Charlie Wilson's War."

On Wednesday night, the Lightning swept the Capitals four games to none and advanced to the conference finals against Boston. I lamented the Capitals' fortunes with a hockey friend. I told her about how I probably would have been sound asleep, with the phone turned off, just like on 9/11, had it not been for Alexander Ovechkin's dramatic goal that forced overtime in game two.

She too pulls for the Caps and was disappointed in Washington's fate. But she noted that Ovechkin's goal, which kept me awake, may have been the only good thing to come out of the Capitals ill-fated playoff series.