Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) hangs out with Cockroaches.
These are not the crunchy, skittery kind of cockroaches that terrorize your kitchen, but the well-shod Washington insider kind that gather several times a year for a high-powered confab on defense and intelligence matters.
The Cockroaches are a venerable Washington, D.C., institution that has apparently never been written about, a kind of not-so-secret society for several hundred current and former defense intelligence officials, private-sector contracting firms, lobbyists, Congressional staffers and Members of Congress. The group meets every other month or so for off-the-record dinners to discuss new developments in defense and intelligence, and to swap war stories, literally and figuratively.
Ruppersberger, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Roll Call on Thursday: "This group, I think, is one of the most successful and popular groups. I've spoken there on numerous occasions. I go to a lot of the Cockroach dinners."
At the center of the Cockroaches are Gary Sojka and Michael Swetnam, two former staffers who decided to start a supper club. Swetnam worked in the White House in the George H.W. Bush administration, and Sojka was a staff member on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees.
The idea was to continue to share information and stay connected to official Washington and each other, they said. Sojka also launched the lobbying firm Potomac Advocates — though he points out that his firm does more strategic advising than lobbying these days. Swetnam runs a think tank/research center called the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, which he and Sojka founded to replace the independent scientific advisory capacity that Congress lost when the Office of Technology Assessment was shut down in 1995. The institute takes nearly all of its funding from government contracts and occasional earmarks, but it is prohibited from lobbying, Swetnam said.
Swetnam is also an adviser to the Senate Intelligence Committee and carries a Congressional staff badge, he said.
Swetnam, Sojka and John Nichols — Sojka's partner at Potomac Advocates who worked in the Pentagon's legislative affairs unit — ran the Cockroaches for years, but as people kept signing up, it became too unwieldy and expensive, so the Potomac Institute now runs the supper club, they said in an interview Friday.
The group is a classic only-in-Washington establishment. The express purpose is to provide government officials, Members of Congress and staff, and private-sector experts in defense and intelligence the opportunity to mingle, network and discuss broad topics of interest in an off-the-record social setting.
The odd name is a reference to the notion that only cockroaches would survive nuclear war. According to the group's prospectus, "election years in Washington often lead to change in the controlling party in Congress or the Administration. Politically this event is similar to a nuclear explosion in that most seniors must resign or are asked to leave. The survivors often move from Congress to the Administration or to industry or back into Congress. Since scientists have stated that the only living things that might survive a nuclear blast are cockroaches the group adopted the name to signify our ability to survive political change in Washington DC."
"It started as such a loose supper club," Sojka said, "and now there are 350 invitees."
Members pay about $1,200 a year to join the group, though Congressional staff and Members are allowed to attend the dinners for free. The Cockroaches received a letter from the Senate Ethics Committee in 2008 declaring that for the purposes of Congressional ethics rules, Cockroaches dinners are "widely attended events," and Members and staff could attend for free.
A fact sheet provided by the group offers an impressive who's who of current and former participants, though some of the attendees declined to confirm their involvement.
The Cockroaches group claims among regular attendees through the years House Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ex-Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper, the former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other top military and government officials.
Ruppersberger said Clapper introduced him on one occasion when he spoke at a Cockroaches event. Several staff members from the Senate Armed Services Committee used to be regular attendees, the men said, but Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has recently discouraged staff from attending out of concern about accepting free meals from the group.
But Sojka and Swetnam said the dinners are not an opportunity for private companies to lobby military officials for assistance with specific projects. "This is not a forum where anybody — a lobbyist or a corporate guy — trying to work an issue with a Hill guy or a Defense guy would be anything but shunned," Swetnam said.
Sojka added that while the Cockroaches group includes many members from private companies, most of them are not clients of Potomac Advocates, and very few are lobbyists.
For all of its secrecy — the events are not advertised, all meetings are off-the-record and it is hard to find anybody willing to discuss their involvement — Sojka, Nichols and Swetnam insist it is a very open organization. "People just ask to come, and we've never turned anyone away," Sojka said. Events are announced to a mailing list, but "we've never invited anyone to join," he said.
The format of the events is generally a keynote speaker discussing a topic of interest followed by a free-wheeling question-and-answer session, the men said. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) spoke at the group's meeting in March, and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) spoke in February.
The Cockroaches events create "the opportunity for a lot of these people in the intelligence community who might have worked in agencies or now are working for the private sector or whatever to see each other, to come together and communicate in a quasi-social atmosphere," Ruppersberger said. "That's the culture of Washington, D.C."
Ruppersberger, who chairs the Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, said: "I've found when I've gone there I've been able to talk to some people that have been very effective on issues I might be working on. ... You see a lot of people there that it can be very difficult to get these people together."
The informal atmosphere of the events is critical, the participants agree.
"It's about relationships and trust here," Ruppersberger said. "In the intel community, a lot of what you have is relationships and trust, and the common bond of working in that field is very important."