Hill Climbers: War Correspondent Takes on a New Battle

Posted April 9, 2010 at 4:01pm

With a combination of luck and a fair measure of risk-taking, Pamela Hess blazed her own trail to Capitol Hill, though there was little to suggest that her prior career manifestations would lead to Congress. In March, Hess, 42, started as communications director for Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), bringing nearly two decades of experience as a journalist, most recently as an intelligence correspondent for the Associated Press, to the job.
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Hess’ jump into the legislative branch had little to do with the desire for change. Instead, the move embodies words she lives by: “Do what scares you.”

“Journalism is so fun, but when I look back at my résumé, it’s all I’ve ever done,” Hess said. “This was a great opportunity to be able to use what I know in the craft of journalism plus what I know academically from what I’ve covered for 15 years, which is national security and intelligence and war. That all combines in a great way in her office.”

Harman sits on the House Energy and Commerce and Homeland Security committees. Hess had been in the orbit of the Harman office for years by covering intelligence and national security.

“In December, they just said, ‘What would you think?’ and I thought about it and by January said, ‘Sure,'” Hess said.

Even with Hess’ multiple trips to Iraq and years covering the Pentagon, the staffer said she becomes the student with Harman.

“She teaches me things,” Hess said. “She knows much more than I know. I know it in a different way. I know it from a bunch of different sources and different perspectives, and she knows it from a real insider place.”

Like Hess, Harman has also spent time in many of the areas of importance to U.S. national security. Harman recently visited Yemen to meet with U.S. and Yemeni officials. Last year, the lawmaker sat in Afghanistan and listened to the tribal elders discuss Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother and an alleged participant in Afghanistan’s drug trade.

Hess’ life story is far from what she envisioned 25 years ago when she departed North Palm Beach, Fla., for college in Washington, D.C. But life has been one lucky turn after another — and a fair amount of hard work — since Hess graduated from American University in 1989 with a degree in international studies.

[IMGCAP(2)]Hess’ first paid gig in journalism came covering neighborhood politics for the Hill Rag, a Capitol Hill community newspaper. From there, Hess worked for the now-defunct States News Service for less than a year.

Word of an opening with Inside Washington Publishers, which produces newsletters covering the ins and outs of the federal policy process, provided Hess’ jump to a solid journalism gig. At IWP, Hess covered the Pentagon for a year as a staff writer before being elevated to editor of Inside the Air Force. In that position, Hess oversaw a handful of writers and broke a lot of news herself, including the first big cyberattack on the U.S. in the late 1990s.

“Back then, nobody in the high levels of the military really understood the Internet or how it worked and what the security vulnerabilities were,” Hess said.

Shortly thereafter, that story led Hess to a chance interaction with Arnaud de Borchgrave at a Center for Strategic and International Studies briefing.

De Borchgrave “sort of harangued the reporters present that they were ignoring this important area of national security, and then he started naming all of these things that had happened, all of which were stories that my little newsletter had written about,” Hess said. “Afterwards, I walked up to him and said, ‘Perhaps you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter.'”

Three days later, de Borchgrave was appointed president and CEO of United Press International and called Hess from London asking whether she wanted a new job. In 1999, Hess signed up to become UPI’s Pentagon correspondent.

“I started three weeks before the Kosovo War,” Hess said. “I had a great advantage because I already understood every weapons system, every bomb, I knew how the Pentagon operated from a business side.”

Fast-forward several years to the George W. Bush administration, and Hess again found herself in the right place at the right time.

“In all that, [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld was front and center and had live press briefings every day,” Hess said. “He just started calling on me at some point. … I ended up having this outsized role in these press briefings because about four or five questions in he’d always go to me.”

When UPI’s correspondents came back from covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hess was ready for her turn. Hess left the U.S. with the intention of embedding in Iraq, even though she had no leads.

“I went over, and again I was just unbelievably lucky,” Hess said. “I planned on flying to Kuwait having no idea how to get to Iraq. … I literally looked at a map and was like, ‘Well Kuwait’s close.'”

That plan changed during Hess’ flight from London to Kuwait, where she happened to be on the same plane as the 1st Marine Division. On the flight, she introduced herself to Gen. James Mattis, the division’s commander at the time. A six-hour flight conversation led Mattis to extend an invitation to Hess to embed with the Marines in Hilla, Iraq.

“The Marines were wonderful and especially Gen. Mattis,” Hess said. “He really trusts his Marines, believes they have their heads screwed on right and if allowed to speak freely will say the right, truthful thing, and that was my experience with them.”

Hess followed her time embedded with the Marines with a one-month stint reporting in Baghdad.

In 2004, Hess returned to Iraq for another month, this time covering the Anbar province, where she wrote a number of counterinsurgency-focused stories.

The following year, she returned once again, this time on a fact-finding mission to verify a claim by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers that 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces were safe.

Hess made it to 13 provinces on that mission.

Hess’ final correspondence trip was in 2007, when she covered the start of Gen. David Petraeus’ troop surge.

“By the time I made that trip I was thoroughly in love with the place,” Hess said. “I didn’t really like it the first couple of times. … As the Iraqis came out of their shells more, as they stood up for themselves, I really fell in love with it. I sort of have my heart in my throat whenever I read about it now.”

That summer, Hess’ big break came in joining the AP, where she worked for the past two and a half years before switching to the Hill.

“We’ll see what happens next,” Hess said. “I tend to just think of the next thing. I’m currently in my next thing right now and later maybe a couple years from now I’ll think of something else.”

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