Can You Keep a Secret? Hop On

Times Staff Writers

For more than five weeks, the president's inner circle and top security advisors 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 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 Thursday 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 media -- and his own parents, who had come 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 Iraq. "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 told of the plan. They arrived at the Bush ranch near 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 B. Johnson to troops in Vietnam; reporters traveling with LBJ did not know they were in Saigon until the plane landed.

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

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

Mike Allen, a Washington Post reporter, was talking on his cellphone outside Crawford Middle School -- the designated media center when Bush is at his ranch -- when a White House official began making mysterious gestures in his direction.

The official waved Allen into a rented Dodge pickup and drove him without explanation to a secluded parking lot a few blocks away.

Two hours before, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told Allen and the other reporters in the media center there would no more news from the president until the end of the holiday weekend. Now Allen was surprised to see Buchan and the president's communications director standing in the parking lot, waiting for him.

"I have news," Bartlett said. "The president is going to Baghdad."

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

All together, the contingent included five reporters -- three wire service, one newspaper and one TV network correspondent -- plus a three-member TV crew 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 found out.

Many of the reporters were incredulous. Some thought it was a practical joke. It wasn't 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 cellphone batteries that 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 without his customary motorcade and, during the 45-minute drive, experienced rush hour and red lights for the first time since he became president.

"The president encountered and witnessed traffic for the first time in three years on the way to the airport," Bartlett said. "That was a little amusing to those who were riding with him."

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice rode with him in the van, also with 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.

As the plane sped toward Andrews at 665 mph, an incredulous Bloomberg reporter, Richard Keil, leaned out of his seat and declared to the rest of the press cabin: "The president of the United States is AWOL, and we're with him. The ultimate road trip."

Reporters felt the plane land two hours and 40 minutes 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 pool reporters got their first glimpse of the president during the switch. Bush, wearing jeans, a work shirt and a baseball cap, appeared in a good mood as he caught sight of the entourage. Over the noise of the aircraft engines, he raised his hand to his ear in a gesture mimicking the use of a cellphone, then waved his arms and drew his finger across his throat and mouthed the words, "No calls, got it?"

"The president's manner was that of a stern father reprimanding his children, but in good humor," Allen said.

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.

A few minutes after liftoff, reporters were told the president had gone to sleep.

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: "Gulfstream Five."

"Oh," replied the British pilot. If the pilot suspected otherwise, he apparently decided to bite his tongue.

As Air Force One neared Baghdad, camouflage clothing and bulletproof vests were distributed to White House staff and the reporters. They were warned to turn off all computers and under no circumstance to even crack the shades on their windows. The descent was in a steep spiral to elude any missiles, and with just a sliver of moon to light the tarmac, the plane came to a stop at the end of the runway.

During the descent and landing, the most dangerous part of the journey, Bush rode in the cockpit. He had already been hustled into an SUV by the time the reporters scrambled out of the plane.

Two and a half hours later, the weary reporters scrambled back up the stairs. As Air Force One prepared to take off for the return flight, Bartlett poked his head into the press cabin and said he believed the secret had held.

As soon as they reached 10,000 feet, they would release the news to the world.

Shortly after takeoff, the first CNN bulletin announcing the trip was relayed onto the Air Force One audio system. The pool reporters were provided air phones to call their news organizations, for the first time in more than 13 hours.

The president then called the reporters to his quarters in the front of the plane and invited them into his office.

Bush thanked them "for honoring the confidentiality necessary to pull this off."

"Had I not been convinced it could be done properly, I wouldn't have gone," he said. "I think Americans also understand that had we announced this, had I gone in to thank our troops with all the flurry of announcement and all the analysts talking about it ahead of time, it would have put me in harm's way. It would have put others in harm's way, including yourselves."

The president said the response from the troops was all the proof he needed that he had made the right decision to make the trip.

"Having seen the reaction of those troops, you know it was the right thing to do," Bush said. "And the word will get out. And their parents will appreciate it and their loved ones will appreciate it, that I went over there to thank them, and not only thank them but to remind them our country stands with them. We will stay the course until the job is done."

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Chen reported from Crawford and Reynolds reported from Tuxedo Park, N.Y.

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