Opinion: Was President Obama endangered by premature news reports of his arrival in Afghan warzone?

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A growing flap -- and concerns -- over President Obama’s personal safety and security in the Afghan war zone tonight, given that some American news outlets reported he was there nearly a half-hour before Air Force One actually landed.

The concern is not just factual. Thus alerted, an enemy with a shoulder-fired missile near Bagram Air Base outside Kabul could have fired on the president’s plane or its decoys.

The president is over the Atlantic Ocean now on a 15-hour return trip following a....


...three-hour-25-minute stay at Bagram and a refueling stop in Germany. He’ll return to the White House early Saturday morning and is expected to make a statement about the newly-completed U.S.-Korean trade agreement, which had stalled during his recent visit to Seoul. According to news pool reports from Air Force One, already White House officials are investigating how the news embargo was dangerously broken first by ABC News and then CNN and MSNBC.

The president is almost always accompanied by a shifting team of pool reporters. Though they don’t necessarily see the chief executive on every outing, they are along or in the vicinity on virtually all such trips, including Obama’s frequent golf games.

The agreement between any administration and the news media is that on such dangerous forays into war zones, news of the trip is embargoed until the president is on the ground or in some cases already departed the area.

The reality, however, is that even before a landing, hundreds if not thousands of people are aware of a secret trip. And the destination is obvious.

Since President George W. Bush surprised U.S. troops in Iraq one Thanksgiving Day, such an at least annual travel homage for Bush or Dick Cheney, Obama or Vice President Joe Biden has become de rigeur, especially in holiday seasons.

As The Ticket reported here earlier today in greater detail, Obama’s trip was particularly predictable since he, his family and numerous Chicago friends are scheduled to leave the White House for Hawaii on Dec. 18 for another two-week holiday vacation. Had he not made a frontline appearance before hitting the beach and golf course there, he would no doubt have received abundant critcism over his attitude toward less fortunate service personnel.

As Air Force One was nearing Bagram Friday evening local time, pool reporters began preparing the news for release by home offices. But when they contacted editors, the traveling reporters were informed the news was already widely known back home. ABC News had broken the news nearly 20 minutes previously, quickly followed by some but not all hungry competitors.

In fact, according to TVNewser, Fox News Channel was the only major news outlet to strictly honor the Obama security embargo, waiting and reporting the president’s arrival in Afghanistan two minutes after White House press aides gave the official OK.

Some details of the president’s plans in Afghanistan were also reported incorrectly initially, and his helicopter trip into Kabul to meet President Hamid Karzai was canceled due to weather concerns.

The fault might rest with defense officials and a misunderstanding. ABC says that an hour before the president’s arrival, it was informed of a military video feed of the upcoming presidential event in an aircraft hangar at Bagram and told there was no embargo. So reporter Martha Raddatz, already in Afghanistan on a separate trip, went live with the story, citing unnamed sources. Competitors stampeded behind.

The dangerous premature report is likely to cause a tightening of security for future Obama trips. In his new book ‘Decision Points,’ former President Bush details the secrecy involved in one of his holiday trips to the Iraq war zone. According to Bush, he and national security adviser Condi Rice were hidden in the backseat of a Secret Service car leaving the president’s Texas ranch late one evening.

The long overnight voyage was kept so secret that even a detachment of Secret Service agents at the ranch was unaware until the next day that the commander-in-chief had been spirited halfway around the world by conspiring security colleagues. Such, obviously, was not the case Friday.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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