Destination Kept Secret Until Plane In the Air

By Michael Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, Sept. 3 -- President Bush's unannounced visit to Iraq on Monday was conceived by a small group of senior Bush aides about six weeks ago and remained a tightly held secret at the White House, said Dana Perino, a deputy press secretary.

Reporters who were planning to travel on the president's plane directly to an Asia-Pacific economic summit in Australia on Monday were called over the weekend and summoned for individual, face-to-face meetings with Perino or Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council spokesman.

They were told to gather at Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday evening, rather than Monday morning, for the trip to Iraq. At Andrews, Secret Service agents collected computers, cellphones and other electronic devices from reporters. The journalists then rode two passenger vans into the heavily guarded hangar that houses the president's jet.

Reporters boarded the plane and waited, with window shades down, as Bush slipped out of the White House and traveled to Andrews in a two-car convoy, instead of his usual motorcade, aides said. Once he was aboard, Air Force One was pushed out of the hangar into the darkness to begin the 12-hour flight to Iraq.

In flight, reporters were told their precise destination. Their computers were returned to them, with instructions to turn off their wireless functions to prevent emission of signals that could allow the president's plane to be tracked.

The journey ended with Bush, wearing slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, stepping down from Air Force One into searing Iraqi summer heat, as two armed guards stood watch at the base of the airplane's steps.

"The president heard about this idea and instantly took to it, and that's why we're doing it," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said.

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