Thursday, November 27, 2003

The president of the United States, wearing a beat-up work coat, jeans, cowboy boots and a baseball cap pulled down over his face, left his ranch Wednesday night and climbed into an unmarked car with tinted windows.

He then secretly commuted to a Texas airport, impeded for the first time in three years by traffic lights and stop signs.

President Bush’s destination: Baghdad. Not even the Secret Service agents who guard his ranch in Crawford knew their ward had slipped away undetected.

“If you were sitting outside the ranch waiting for the president, you would not have known the president had just left,” White House communications director Dan Bartlett said.

The trip to the Texas State Technical College airstrip, where Air Force One is stowed during such home visits, normally takes less than 20 minutes in a presidential motorcade. This time it took 45.

Mr. Bush joked during the drive about battling “Thanksgiving traffic” for the first time since taking office.

“There were plenty of vehicles out there,” Mr. Bush recounted later, talking with reporters aboard Air Force One on his way home from Baghdad.

At the airport on his way out, the president pulled down his cap even further to keep from being recognized by a guard at the gate.

“Pulled ‘er down,” he recalled.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, along for the ride, also wore a baseball cap.

“We looked like a normal couple,” Mr. Bush said.

The president’s parents, former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, didn’t know about their son’s trip until after they arrived at the ranch for Thanksgiving dinner yesterday morning.

By that time, the president was close to Baghdad. First lady Laura Bush, who knew about the secret plans, found out Wednesday night that the trip was on. Their two daughters were told just hours before he left. They loved the idea, he said.

At the airport, Mr. Bush climbed up the plane’s back stairs — normally used only by the press and Secret Service agents. White House staff had concocted a cover story: The plane was going back to Washington for maintenance. With the Bushes expected to spend the holiday weekend at the ranch, few suspicions were raised.

All but a few White House correspondents were unaware. Low-level presidential aides secretly contacted reporters for the main wire services, along with “pool” reporters — one print, one radio, one television. All were forbidden from telling employers — or even loved ones — that they were heading to Baghdad.

A few photographers thought it was an elaborate prank, for good reason: Deputy Press Secretary Claire Buchan on Wednesday had told reporters covering the president’s holiday stay in Crawford that there would be no briefing in the next few days. She even went through the exercise of detailing to the last fritter the Thanksgiving Day menu for the Bushes.

Air Force One took off at 8:25 p.m. EST, bound for Andrews Air Force Base. Upon landing, the robin’s-egg-blue-and-white 747 taxied into the supersecret hangar that is home to two matching presidential planes. Reporters disembarked and, before boarding the second plane, saw the president for the first time.

Mr. Bush stood atop the plane’s steps and, with the engines roaring, held his thumb and little finger to his face as if talking on the phone, mouthing the words, “No calls, got it?”

To drive home the point, the president slashed his hand in front of his throat and again mouthed, “No calls.”

Reporters had been asked to remove the batteries from their cell phones so the plane’s movement could not be tracked. At that point, a photographer said to a skeptical colleague, “Do you believe it now?”

Several reporters already on the second Air Force One, gathered secretly at a hotel near the base, couldn’t make calls either. They had been ordered to surrender cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices, which were held by security officials until the plane was airborne.

Mr. Bush said he was determined early on not to put troops “in harm’s way” with his trip, but also was concerned about the press.

“I wasn’t sure people would be able to tell their loved ones, ‘I can’t see you on Thanksgiving, I can’t tell you why.’ I was worried about that,” he said on the flight home.

The secret switch to the second plane complete, the entourage took off for Baghdad.

Mr. Bush still had his doubts.

“I was fully prepared to turn this baby around, come home,” he said later. “Our planners worked to answer every question. I had a lot of questions.”

Three hours before landing in Baghdad, the president checked with the Secret Service again and was assured the secret was intact.

But the entire ruse was nearly undone when an observant pilot of a British Airways jetliner spotted the plane and asked on the radio, “Did I just see Air Force One?”

The president’s pilot, Col. Mark Tillman, responded, “Gulf Stream Five” — referring to a much smaller plane. “Oh,” replied the British pilot, perhaps catching on, perhaps unaware.

On the approach to Baghdad, Mr. Bush went into the cockpit and watched Col. Tillman bring Air Force One down, lights off and window shades pulled down.

A senior administration official said the plane descended from 40,000 feet in a spiral as a defense maneuver commonly used by aircraft landing at the Baghdad airport.

The airport was blackened and Air Force One, once on the ground, could not be seen. The motorcade traveled to the mess hall full of troops with lights out on most vehicles.

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