Surprise trip by President Bush: reporters’ perspective

June 13, 2006 at 7:00 pm (Iraq, News, The Media)

I am posting here an entry on the Drudge Report on what reporters are saying about the surprise trip by President Bush to Baghdad, Iraq. These reporters evidently were a few of those selected to travel with President Bush to Iraq. You can read it on the the Drudge Report‘s website. I am posting the entire piece here in case the link becomes obsolete. It’s not short.

POOL REPORT: BUSH IN IRAQ
Tue Jun 13 2006 09:53:26 ET

BAGHDAD, Iraq – President Bush left for Baghdad on an unannounced five-hour trip designed to boost the government of new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and allow the two leaders to get to know each other face-to-face.

The president departed Andrews Air Force Base after secretly traveling by helicopter from Camp David, where he was in the middle of a two-day Iraq summit with members of his cabinet and senior military officials. He was accompanied by senior aides like National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, White House counselor Dan Bartlett, Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagan and White House spokesman Tony Snow.

“The POTUS is on board!” Mr. Bush, wearing a navy blue baseball cap, dark pants and blue button down shirt, yelled to reporters as he climbed the rear steps of the plane. [POTUS is a White House acronym for President of the United States.] Air Force One – piloted by the same colonel who had flown Mr. Bush to Iraq on his first trip to Iraq in November 2003 — was wheels-up at 9:07 PM Washington time Monday night. It landed at Baghdad International Airport at 4:08 PM Baghdad time Tuesday afternoon.

Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters aboard Air Force One that the trip was planned over the past month by a small group of six White House he described as a “very, very close circle of people.” He said that Mr. Bush had wanted to come to Iraq as soon as the final positions in Mr. Maliki’s government – the ministers of Defense and Interior – were chosen. Had those posts been filled sooner, Mr. Bush would have made the trip several months earlier, Mr. Bartlett said.

Apart from Vice President Cheney, the only cabinet members notified in advance that the president would be visiting Baghdad were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom remained at Camp David after Mr. Bush left for Iraq, Mr. Bartlett said. The rest of the Bush cabinet members assembled at Camp David – including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns – weren’t told that Mr. Bush had left Camp David until Tuesday morning, Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Bartlett said that the president left Camp David Monday evening after excusing himself from an after-dinner discussion about Iraq that included Mr. Cheney; Messrs. Gonzalez, Bodman, and Johanns; National Intelligence Director John Negroponte; Gen. Michael Hayden, the Director of Central Intelligence; and Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. Bartlett explained that at approximately 7:45 PM, Mr. Bush told the officials that he was “losing altitude” and wanted to go to bed to read a bit before falling asleep. The meeting adjourned around 8 PM, but the president had by that point already quietly left for Andrews. Mr. Bartlett declined to specify how the president snuck away without the other officials noticing his absence, but said that the helicopter Mr. Bush flew to Andrews was not the green and white helicopter normally used as Marine One.

“Our cabinet is not completely aware,” he said. “They all expected him to show up at breakfast with the ambassador of Iraq.”

Mr. Bartlett said that First Lady Laura Bush knew of the trip, though he was unsure of how long ago she had been informed.

The Iraqi government was similarly kept in the dark, Mr. Bartlett said. Mr. Maliki and senior members of his new cabinet had been asked to gather in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad Tuesday morning for a secure video teleconference with Mr. Bush and his war cabinet at Camp David. Neither Mr. Maliki nor any members of his government were told that Mr. Bush was instead planning to visit Baghdad in person, Mr. Bartlett said. The U.S. told Mr. Maliki that the president was in Baghdad only after the president’s Nighthawk helicopter had landed in a secure airfield in the Green Zone after a six-minute trip from the Baghdad airport.

Mr. Bartlett said the extraordinarily-tight protective measures were necessary because of Iraq’s tenuous security situation, which also meant that the option of having Mr. Bush stay overnight in Iraq was “never seriously considered.”

“The president views it you’re entering into a situation with a very determined enemy who wants to stop the very progress that this president and this new government are working so hard to achieve,” Mr. Bartlett said. “Obviously, when you’re entering into a situation where the enemy is so active we have to be extra cautious, but I think the American people and the entire international community are reassured by the fact that the president is making such a personal effort to ensure the success of the new government.”

Secrecy was also tight surrounding the gathering of your pool. Reporters were informed of the president’s travel plans in person at a variety of Washington area restaurants, homes, and cafes little more than 24 hours before departure. A harried radio correspondent discovered his pool assignment with a couple of hours’ notice (he still made the drive from the Camp David file in time.) Poolers were under strict orders to tell nobody about the travel, including spouses. Some were asked if their bureaus would notice their absence for a day or two.

The pool gathered outside an Arlington, Virginia hotel and was asked to surrender cell phones, blackberries etc. Some found this hard on an emotional level, but complied all the same. We then drove the back roads of Andrews directly to a parking lot outside the secure area surrounding the runway. Security personnel used hand-held wands to check us for metal objects, and a bomb-sniffing dog was led past all of our luggage. The dog also sniffed under the vans we had traveled in. We drove directly to the steps of AF1, which was parked out of sight of the terminal, close by its hangar. The usual protocols were absent: no officers checking names at the base of the stairs, no departure wave from the president [it was dark when the substitute Marine One landed.] For those who care, dinner was ravioli and the initial entertainment was a Nationals-Colorado game.

Although the president’s trip to Baghdad was set to last only five hours, aides said that he would keep to a busy schedule. Mr. Bartlett said the president would hold bilateral discussions with Mr. Maliki before joining the Iraqi premier and his cabinet for the video teleconference with the U.S. cabinet officials gathered at Camp David . President Bush was also scheduled to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, and an undisclosed roster of Iraqis drawn from the country’s business, cultural and educational circles.

Mr. Bartlett said the main point of the trip was to enable Mr. Bush to meet Mr. Maliki face-to-face and get a clearer sense of the Iraqi premier’s priorities and the specific ways the U.S. government could help him succeed. [In a briefing last week before the Iraq trip was announced, Mr. Bartlett had said the U.S. was already reviewing ways it could help Mr. Maliki disarm the country’s sectarian militias and improve its spotty electricity system.] He declined to say whether the two men planned to discuss the timing and scope of any U.S. military withdrawals from Iraq.

“When you’re dealing with issues of enormous consequence, the security of our country, the security of the Middle East and the world, and you’re making such monumental decisions, its critically important that you’re able to meet with the new leader, confer with the leader, who you’re going to be making those decisions with,” he said. “We are committed to the success of the new government and the Maliki plan that he is outlining.”

Meeting in person was designed to allow Mr. Bush and Mr. Maliki to “establish a closer relationship than you can just over a telephone,” Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Bartlett said that Mr. Bush had invited the Iraqi premier to visit the White House, but that the trip’s timing had not yet been finalized.

Yochi Dreazen
The Wall Street Journal

Richard Wolffe
Newsweek

POOL REPORT #2

Air Force One landed at the sprawling Baghdad International Airport at 4:08 PM Tuesday afternoon. The plane landed at a semi-deserted airstrip a good distance away from the main terminal. We were hustled off the plane by its back doors and led across the pavement to a waiting convoy of Nighthawk passenger helicopters [Secret Service agents had given us camouflage flak jackets shortly before we landed]. We didn’t see POTUS enter his helicopter. As we took off, we could see a long list of waiting vehicles that had driven to the airstrip to meet the plane, including several GMC Suburbans, Humvees, and a white and red ambulance.

The helicopter ride was uneventful and lasted about seven minutes. Everyone on the helicopters was in body armor except for the White House aides, who wore business suits but no armor. Bartlett had earlier said that POTUS would also not be wearing body armor, though we could not verify that for ourselves. When we landed in the Green Zone, we were hustled to a waiting line of Suburbans and other SUVs for the short drive to the Republican Palace, a 1950’s-era building which is now part of the U.S. Embassy compound. We arrived there around 4:32 PM local time.

The pool was ushered into a large, domed room in the center of the palace near the entrance to what had been the offices of American proconsul Paul Bremer. An American and an Iraqi flag had been arrayed next to the entrance to the hallway leading to the offices, and when we walked in we saw Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and one of his aides standing there by themselves waiting for POTUS.

POTUS, wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt, and blue tie, swept into the room at 4:43 PM local time, escorted by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad; Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq; Messrs. Hadley, Bolten, Snow; and other aides and Secret Service personnel. Mr. Bush walked up to Mr. Maliki and shook his hand as the cameras flashed. Mr. Maliki said, “Good to see you,” to which Mr. Bush responded, “Thanks for having me.” They stood in the hallway for another minute and then disappeared into one of the former Bremer offices.

END

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