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Behind the Scenes: Trying to get 'the building that speaks' off mute

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  • Spokesman: "I have no comment on any alleged cross-border operation into Syria"
  • Pentagon, known as "the building that speaks," is staying mute about Syria
  • Syria says eight civilians were killed, condemns action as a "serious aggression"
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From Jamie McIntyre
CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre spent the morning at the Department of Defense headquarters trying to get confirmation about an attack against Syria.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Pentagon is sometimes known as "the building that speaks," because when officials here issue pronouncements, it's often reported that the Pentagon "said" something.

But the building is mute over the weekend attack in Syria, where it's reported, and widely believed, that U.S. special operations forces launched a helicopter attack from in Iraq five miles across the border into Syrian territory.

The Syrian government said eight innocent civilians were killed, including four children, and condemned the action as a "serious aggression."

The Pentagon's response: "I have no comment on any alleged cross-border operation into Syria," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said at his morning "gaggle," the daily gathering of defense reporters in this office.

The reporters kept trying, but Whitman, an old hand at dealing with the media, refused to rise to the bait, swatting away questions that came anywhere near the topic, of even what the general policy is for U.S. troops crossing the borders.

How many ways are there to say "no?"

"I have no comment."

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"I decline to comment."

"I refuse to comment."

"I have no response."

Of course the less the Pentagon says, the more it seems to confirm the account, since Pentagon representatives are usually quick to deny operations they have nothing to do with.

"Will you deny it?" one reporter asked Whitman.

He laughed, then said, "I am not going to go down the road of confirming or denying anything."

"I'll take that as a confirmation," one reporter said.

The reality is that all the reporters believe the attack took place, but none has anything on the record that's usable.

One advantage, though, of covering the Pentagon: It is a wide-open building with literally thousands of "potential sources," and almost everything leaks at one point or another.

So when I spot a senior military officer who would know, I corner him in the hallway.

"I have nothing for you on that," he says.

"But somebody's talking," I counter.

"Someone always does," he responds as he walks away, shaking his head from side to side.


That's how the day started, but within a few hours we found the "someone" who was talking.

CNN Pentagon producer Mike Mount was roaming the halls, and ran into someone who gave us a lead.

Within minutes Mike and I were on the phone with a source who had access to the intelligence we were seeking.

These kind of officials never want to be identified, so we agreed to call him (or her) a U.S. official.

As a result CNN was the first to report the target of the U.S. commando attack into Syria was a man known as "Abu Ghadiyah," who the United States said was smuggling foreign fighters into Iraq, along with money and guns on behalf of al Qaeda.

And within minutes other reporters were scurrying around the building trying to match CNN's story.

All About SyriaThe PentagonU.S. Armed Forces

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