- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

“The POTUS is on board!” yelled a man of nearly 60 wearing a Navy baseball cap, dark pants and no tie, who had just climbed the drop-down backstairs of Air Force One in the dark and slipped into the rearmost cabin, crammed full with reporters and photographers.

It was, in fact, not just the customary announcement made when the president of the United States (POTUS) boards his plane. This was, in fact, the POTUS himself, minutes before Monday night’s secret trip to Baghdad, one so elaborately planned that it included the president lying to his closest aides and the White House duping reporters.

At 7:45 p.m. Monday, Mr. Bush, nearing the end of the first of two days of meetings on Iraq at Camp David, sought his leave from his top military and intelligence advisers, including National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte, CIA Director Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden and Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I’m losing altitude — I’m going to read,” Mr. Bush told the group, ostensibly heading to bed. But he did not. Instead, he slipped out of the fortified presidential retreat and into an unmarked helicopter, not his normal Marine One chopper, for a quick ride to Andrews Air Force Base and an 11-hour flight to Baghdad.

Vice President Dick Cheney was about the only one at the nighttime Camp David gathering who knew that the president was headed to Iraq.

“Our Cabinet is not completely aware,” senior Bush aide Dan Bartlett later told reporters on Air Force One en route. “They all expected him to show up at breakfast with the ambassador of Iraq.”

The president was to host a videoconference yesterday morning with members of his Cabinet and the new leaders of Iraq. Instead, Mr. Bush appeared on the televisions in Camp David from Baghdad, seated next to new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Even Mr. al-Maliki didn’t know about the meeting until five minutes before the president arrived; he, too, was tricked, showing up at the U.S. Embassy’s quarters expecting merely the announced videoconference.

The trip was the brainchild of the president himself, who told his staff that he wanted to travel to Baghdad as soon as Mr. al-Maliki filled the final positions in his government, which occurred Thursday. The White House set up a strange series of movements for the president: He went to Camp David on Thursday and then returned to the White House on Sunday, only to leave again for his retreat early the next morning. Reporters were lulled.

In addition, just an hour before the president sneaked onto a helicopter at Camp David, the White House e-mailed reporters the next day’s schedule for the president, which included a 2:30 p.m. press conference in the Rose Garden. No one suspected that the president would be halfway around the world at that time.

Secrecy was also tight surrounding the gathering of the small pool of reporters and photographers who went on the trip. Some were called to mysterious meetings at restaurants and cafes in Washington in the 24 hours before the trip. One radio reporter discovered his pool assignment with only a couple of hours’ notice, but made it just in time.

The reporters were told to keep the plan secret, even from spouses and editors, and had to surrender their cellular phones and BlackBerrys before boarding Air Force One.

Like in a spy movie, the pool gathered outside an Arlington hotel, then drove the back roads of Andrews Air Force Base to the president’s plane, which was parked out of sight of the terminal, far from its usual spot near the runway. With reporters on board, Mr. Bush bounded up the small set of backstairs, and the odyssey began.

The ruse — or at least the president’s attire — was somewhat similar to that of the last time the president sneaked off to Baghdad — Thanksgiving Day 2003. On that trip, the president, spending the holiday at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, was driven to a Waco airstrip in an unmarked vehicle along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was then his national security adviser.

“I slipped on a baseball cap, pulled ‘er down — as did Condi. We looked like a normal couple,” Mr. Bush told reporters after he returned from that trip.

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