Sat, Nov 29, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Baghdad visit was a closely-guarded secret

REUTERS , BAGHDAD

Slouched in the back of a nondescript vehicle with a baseball cap pulled over his face, President George W. Bush sneaked out of Texas on the first leg of his bold trip to Baghdad.

It was the starting point of a long journey that had to be kept secret or would be called off because of the security risk.

The cover story, perpetuated by the White House press office, was that Bush was having Thanksgiving dinner with his family at his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

But the reality was that a Bush trip to Baghdad had been in the planning stages since mid-October, with Bush agonizing over the details.

It picked up steam in recent weeks and finally received the green light on Wednesday. Only a handful of top aides knew about it, as did Bush's wife, Laura. But Bush's parents, former president George Bush and Barbara Bush, were kept in the dark -- they went to Crawford expecting to eat a turkey dinner with their son.

Bush, with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, slipped away from his ranch in a vehicle with tinted windows on Wednesday night, security personnel at the wheel. They encountered traffic, something Bush has rarely faced in nearly three years of using the Marine One helicopter to get from A to B in a hurry.

"A lot of people [were] heading up to Dallas," Bush said once Air Force One was safely out of Iraqi air space. "And so we were about 10 minutes late to the plane."

To get to his Air Force One jet parked at the Texas State Technical College in Waco, Bush pulled his cap low and slumped to the side. Rice did the same.

The vehicle passed through the gate and Bush entered the plane from the rear to avoid being seen.

The story used to explain why the plane was leaving was that it needed routine maintenance back in Washington.

The secrecy was holding.

Next stop: Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. The plane entered a giant hangar, Bush stepped off and immediately boarded a second Air Force jet, gassed up and ready to go.

Bush found this the most crucial moment for keeping the trip secret, because now more people knew about it. He cautioned reporters against making cell phone calls. A truncated press pool was taken, its members cautioned ahead of time that the trip was a national security secret and that if word got out, it could jeopardize the president.

The plane took off for Baghdad on Wednesday night on an 11-hour flight. Somewhere en route, a British Airways pilot thought he spotted an unusual plane from his cockpit.

"Did I just see Air Force One?" the pilot radioed.

There was a pause. Then came the response from Air Force One: "Gulfstream 5" -- a much smaller aircraft.

Another pause. "Oh," said the BA pilot.

With three hours to go, Bush had the Secret Service check to see if his mission was still secret.

"They assured me that there was still a tight hold on the information, that conditions on the ground were as positive as positive could be."

Toward the end of the flight, bullet-proof vests were distributed to those who wanted them. Flight attendants ordered all window covers closed. All lights inside the plane were turned off. Bush said he went up to the cockpit to watch the pilot, Colonel Mark Tilman, land at Baghdad's airport.

The plane landed in nearly pitch darkness, a sliver of moon hanging in the sky. Passengers disembarked and climbed into vehicles for the short ride to a military mess hall.

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