Veil of Secrecy
I was editing a video in my home office when the call came in. The caller ID showed the number for the NBC News desk..that’s never good on a day off. On the other end was my deputy bureau chief. In cryptic, enigmatic language, she was telling me that me our departure schedule for the President’s trip to Australia had changed. What she never actually said, but i heard loud and clear, was that the President of the United States was going to Iraq.
And so an otherwise languid day off before an overseas trip, quickly became an urgent day of preparation. On this trip, I was assigned as soundman to veteran NBC News cameraman Rodney Batten. With us were NBC White House correspondent John Yang and Senior White House producer Antoine Sanfuentes, plus uplink engineers from our New York technical operations department. We actually loaded a satellite transmission pack on Air Force One, which we believe is unprecedented.
Because of operational security, none but the “travel pool” are given even limited details of the trip. As far as the news desk at NBC knew, Air Force One was departing on Monday. So as the NBC pool team was about to enter the base under a cloak of secrecy Sunday, an assignment editor dutifully called us with our Monday “in-time”. As some of my readers know, I’ve had a close call in Iraq, so I’m never too jazzed about going over there. But if there were ever the safest time and place in Iraq, this was it. Still I was glad to be getting it out of the way at the beginning of the trip.
We met on Andrews Air Force base at an unusual location, where a security detail confiscated all of our cameras, phones, and computers. All of us were then taken to a special hangar on base that houses the two 747’s primarily designated Air Force One. Seeing those two birds looming above, facing nose-to-nose, as we drove into the hangar was an inspiring sight. Once all the travel pool press had boarded we were sealed in our cabin. We were told to keep the windows shut on the plane and to remain in the press cabin. The president was secreted out of the White House in what we later learned was a small, two car motorcade package.
Wheels Up to Iraq
After an hour or so of sitting in the hangar, we could feel that we were being towed. And at 20:05 we were wheels up for Iraq. Press secretary Dana Perino came to the back of the plane to “gaggle” about the details of our trip. That’s when the destination was confirmed: Al Asad airbase in Anbar province. Reporters pressed her on whether Bush was actually on the plane or not. Turns out he was, as was Secretary of State Rice.
White House spokesperson Dana Perino briefing press on AF-1
After a twelve hour flight, Air Force One gently touched down at the Al Asad air base in the Anbar province of Iraq. Mr. Bush stepped off the plane to begin a day full of meetings, some for cameras, others not. The President met with troops, his cabinet, local tribal leaders, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (I errantly refer to him as “President” in the video.) It was was a seemingly endless day of photo-ops, motorcade movements, and absolutely no time to spare.
Air Force One on the Flight Line at Al Asad
In a brief break in the action during closed meetings we were escorted to a “hold” where we bumped into Secretary Gates’ traveling press pool and former NBC colleague Katie Couric. It was a nice little reunion and she introduced us to her new boss, CBS evening news executive producer Rick Kaplan. Kaplan was acting as her second camera crew shooting with a small DV camera. The day was capped with a series of one on one interviews with the President and TV networks. We were then rushed to the motorcade, then out to the plane to begin our journey to Australia.
The entire time I was there, I was desperate to get some dispatches from Iraq out on Twitter. Newsweek photographer Khue Bui kindly offered up his powerbook so i get some tweets out. It was great to get such kind thoughts and well-wishes from the Twitter community. I’m still going through replies, but it buoyed my spirits to see that folks wanted to make sure I was safe. That really meant a lot to me. Like I’ve said before, no matter where I am in the world, I’m never traveling alone.