President's trip conducted in great secrecy

Not even Bush's parents were informed of flight

November 28, 2003|By Edwin Chen and Maura Reynolds | Edwin Chen and Maura Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CRAWFORD, Texas - For more than five weeks, the president's inner circle and top security advisers kept the idea to themselves. During a trip to Asia in October, President Bush had asked his most trusted aides to try to fly him to Baghdad, Iraq, for Thanksgiving dinner with U.S. troops.

There hadn't been a secretive presidential trip to a war zone in decades, and if it was to work, they agreed, not even their deputies could know.

That was the start of a trip yesterday in which the president of the United States slipped away from his Texas ranch and into Baghdad undetected, surprising hundreds of U.S. troops, the news media - and his own parents who came here for Thanksgiving dinner.

"Very few outside of the command structure know or knew about the logistics," White House communications director Dan Bartlett told reporters as they flew in a darkened, Air Force One to Baghdad. "If this breaks while we're in the air, we're turning around."

"I had to tell my family, that would be my wife and daughters, that I would not be there for Thanksgiving," Bush recounted to reporters during the return trip. "I assured them I wouldn't be going unless it wasn't well thought out and well planned." He asked them to save him leftovers.

Not even the president's parents - former President and Barbara Bush - were entrusted with the plan. They arrived at the Bush ranch in Crawford to learn that their son had left the night before.

Historians said there were few precedents for such a trip. The most recent appears to have been a 1967 Christmas visit by Lyndon Johnson to troops in Vietnam; reporters traveling with LBJ did not know they were in Saigon until the plane landed.

Similarly, the news media was kept in the dark about Bush's trip until the last minute, and then sworn to secrecy.

The White House keeps a daily rotation of "pool" reporters who are on call in case of unexpected news. Late Wednesday, White House officials began rounding them up.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan, who had only been told herself, worked with Bartlett and other White House officials for the next two hours to locate the rest of the news media pool, who were scattered around Crawford and Waco, 25 miles away. One drowsy photographer was roused from a nap in his hotel. Another half dozen were contacted in Washington and told to head to Andrews Air Force Base.

All together, the news media contingent included five reporters -- three wire services, one newspaper and one TV network correspondent -- plus a three-member TV crew and and five still photographers.

Bartlett forbade them to contact their news organizations or families. The idea, he said, was to get the president to Baghdad, visit with troops and local officials and get him back in the air to the United States before anyone would find out.

Many of the reporters were incredulous. Some thought it was a practical joke. It took until the reporters were driven to the private airport the president uses in Waco, hustled aboard a darkened Air Force One and asked to relinquish their cell phone batteries before the reality sunk in.

"Do you believe it now?" one photographer said to another.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the president was sneaking past his own Secret Service detail, wearing a baseball cap and riding in an unmarked van with darkened windows. He was driven without his customary motorcade and during the 45-minute drive, experienced rush hour and red lights for the first time since he became president.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice rode with him in the van, also in a baseball cap pulled low over her face.

"We looked like a normal couple," Bush recounted later.

The crew had prepared Air Force One for a flight to Washington, believing it was only a maintenance flight. They were as surprised as the Secret Service when the president boarded, coming up the rear stairs instead of his usual gangway at the front. The plane took off without running lights and with all the window shades pulled.

Reporters felt the plane land two hours later but were not allowed to look outside until the plane rolled to a stop inside a top-secret hangar at Andrews. Under the hangar's bright lights, they descended from one presidential 747 and boarded another - both are designated Air Force One whenever the president is aboard.

The aircraft lifted off from Andrews at 11 p.m., still with shades down and without running lights or the usual transponder identifying it as Air Force One. Even the aircraft's phones and some of its other high-tech communications equipment was shut down.

At one point during the 10 1/2-hour flight, the stealth mission was almost revealed when the pilot of a British Airways jetliner spotted the presidential plane with its distinctive blue and gold paint design.

On the open radio, the pilot asked, "Did I just see Air Force One?" After moments of silence, the Air Force One pilot responded over the radio by identifying himself as a much smaller aircraft: "Gulf Stream Five."

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