Just when reporters were finally interested in traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice again, there was no space for them on her plane.
For months now, the TV networks have not been sending crews on Miss Rice’s trips, and most major newspapers have had only a sporadic presence on the plane. The two main reasons for that have to do with the naturally decreasing interest in a lame-duck administration and tight budgets, which are now almost exclusively dedicated to the presidential campaign.
It took a crisis between Russia and Georgia to attract greater media interest in Miss Rice’s travels, and when President Bush announced Wednesday that she would leave for France and Georgia that night, the secretary’s regular traveling press corps expected to be on the plane.
The State Department, however, stunned everyone by saying that only one seat was available for press. Miss Rice would take an aircraft smaller that the usual Air Force version of a Boeing 757 she uses, which allows for about 13 of us to go along, as I wrote in an earlier post here.
There are four such planes for government use. Mr. Bush often uses one when traveling domestically, with another one as a backup, and he was about to go to Texas. Vice President Dick Cheney was to take the third plane to California, and the fourth was undergoing maintenance.
Miss Rice has taken the smaller plane before, but there has always been space at least for the three main wire services: Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.
This time, however, we were told that additional seats were needed for more Diplomatic Security agents from the secretary’s protective detail, who would normally go to the countries she is about to visit several days earlier as part of an advance team. Because there was little time for any advance arrangements, this was the only solution, department officials said.
When reporters’ anger was finally brought to Miss Rice’s attention by her press aides, she agreed that only one reporter on the plane was not reasonable and instructed her chief of staff, Brian Gunderson, to find seats for all three wires.
As a result, the security agents stayed home.
Nicholas Kralev, diplomatic correspondent, The Washington Times