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Can You Keep a Secret? Hop On

November 28, 2003|Edwin Chen and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

CRAWFORD, Texas — 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.

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