Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Air Force One photo shoot over New York City last month, with the presidential aircraft buzzing lower Manhattan at 1,000 feet as terrified workers were fleeing office buildings, was a convergence of gaffes missed e-mails and phone calls, doses of pain pills, early departures from the office, and hallway “asides” that went nowhere.

The debacle culminated Friday in the resignation of Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office (WHMO).

“I have concluded that the controversy surrounding the Presidential Airlift Group’s aerial photo shoot over New York City has made it impossible for me to effectively lead the White House Military Office,” Mr. Caldera said, noting that the fiasco had become “a distraction.”

The White House Counsel’s Office, led by attorney Greg Craig, conducted an internal review of the fiasco, which was released by the White House Friday, along with a single photo of the flyover. The report was both bizarre and inconclusive, essentially grinding into a “he said, he said” about who knew what, when.

The report said: Initial planning for the flyover, in which a combat photographer trailing Air Force One in one of two F-16 fighter jets was assigned to take a new publicity photo of the presidential plane as it flew low over the Statue of Liberty, began in March 2009, “or earlier.”

On April 3, a group of federal and state officials, along with the Federal Aviation Administration, held a conference call to discuss “operational issues and public affairs/outreach issues.” Those on the call concluded that “public affairs and outreach efforts must be carefully coordinated and timed.”

There was a consensus that coordination with “the general public” would commence two days before the flight, but the written summary of the call insisted that “no reference should be made to the presidential aircraft in any public outreach.”

Neither Mr. Caldera, who was traveling with President Obama in Europe at the time, nor his deputy, George Mulligan, sat in on the call.

On April 9, Col. Scott Turner, commander of the Presidential Airlift Group (PAG), sent an e-mail to Mr. Mulligan detailing the flyover. Several days later, Col. Turner got back in touch, saying the plan was still under development.

Meanwhile, Mr. Caldera again accompanied Mr. Obama abroad, this time to Mexico and Trinidad, returning April 19.

The next day, April 20, Mr. Mulligan informed his boss for the first time about the flyover. He described the plan and even suggested that Mr. Caldera might “want to inform White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina because the plan involved the use of the presidential aircraft and because it was unusual.”

“The Director [Mr. Caldera] does not recall the conversation. He does not deny it took place,” the report said.

Missed e-mail and pain pills

By April 23, plans were in the final stages. Col. Turner e-mailed Mr. Mulligan “that for security reasons, details about the flight would be treated as ‘FOUO’ (‘for official use only’).” Plans were also in the works to inform the “general public on or after 26 Apr.”

“The Deputy Director [Mr. Mulligan] believes that he did not read Colonel Turner’s e-mail until the following morning,” the report said.

At 11:21 a.m. on April 24, he e-mailed his boss: “All has been coordinated. Will probably receive some local press, but WH shouldn’t catch any questions about it. Provided in case you want to pass to Jim Messina or [White House spokesman] Robert Gibbs for awareness.”

According to the report, the director, Mr. Caldera, did not respond to the e-mail. In fact, he now says “he did not read the e-mail until the afternoon of Monday, April 27, after the flyover had concluded. He explained to us that he did not see the e-mail because it was sent to his WHMO e-mail account the director has two e-mail accounts and checks his White House account more frequently.”

But Mr. Caldera offered another explanation for his failure to read the e-mail. “When he returned from Mexico,” the report said, “he was suffering from severe muscle spasms in his back. Doctors prescribed pain medication, he had difficulty walking around the office, and he went home early a couple of days.”

But also on April 24, Mr. Mulligan “told the director that he should notify Mssrs. Messina and Gibbs, and the director said, ‘OK.’ Mr. Mulligan told investigators that “it was not a hallway discussion and could not be characterized as an ‘aside.’”

But Mr. Caldera said it was just that, “a brief hallway exchange.” He described the April 24 discussion as “an FYI that unfortunately didn’t register as a big deal” and “an aside.”

Mr. Caldera did not notify the White House deputy chief of staff or spokesman. “Asked why he failed to do so, he did not offer a coherent explanation. He stated that it was not a conscious decision he did not decide NOT to notify them. Instead, he suggested that it may have been an oversight. He noted that the deputy director had not told him (and he did not understand) that Air Force One would be flying over lower Manhattan at a very low altitude.”

The director said he had not been asked to approve the flyover, and noted that “experienced professionals” had planned the mission.

On April 25, Col. Turner sent an e-mail to his boss, saying, “Secretary Caldera and George Mulligan have both ‘blessed’ this event. They were to brief Jim Messina and Robert Gibbs for their awareness only.”

On April 27, shortly after hysterical reports said that a 747 was buzzing New York City with two fighter jets chasing it, a White House staffer, Denis McDonough, pulled Mr. Mulligan out of a meeting, informing him that “issues had arisen regarding that flight.”

Mr. Caldera left the meeting to meet with Mr. Messina. Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel “entered the room, described the controversy created by the flight, and asked whether the White House knew about the flyover in advance.”

“According to the director, this was the first time he learned that the flight reminded people of 9/11,” the report said. Mr. McDonough later dropped by with “a prepared statement on behalf of the director, which accepted responsibility for the flyover. The director made some edits to the draft statement and gave it back to Mr. McDonough.”

“Both the director and the deputy director feel terrible about the incident,” the White House Counsel’s report concludes. “The director stated that he had no idea that the plan called for the aircraft to fly at 1,000 feet; he feels terrible that the flight has caused harm.”

“In the deputy director’s view, the breakdown was the lack of public notification.”

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide