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 whos 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 weve never turned anyone away, Sojka said. Events are announced to a mailing list, but weve 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 groups 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. Thats the culture of Washington, D.C.
Ruppersberger, who chairs the Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, said: Ive found when Ive gone there Ive 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.
Its 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.