The phone calls to the journalists were cryptic. Their cell phones were confiscated. And at the moment that they realized they were watching an abruptly scheduled transfer of power from U.S. authorities to the new Iraqi government yesterday, most of America was fast asleep.
Only two big-name television stars, ABC anchor Peter Jennings and CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, witnessed the brief ceremony in Baghdad.
Moments before they were ushered into the nondescript room, Jennings said yesterday from Baghdad, "a couple of us looked at each other in a highly speculative way and said maybe it had something to do with sovereignty."
CBS's Dan Rather, who was off reporting elsewhere in Iraq, said his team had heard from a U.S. source that " 'we can't tell you what it's going to be, but it's going to be something big.' We did not think there was a high probability it would be the handover."
MSNBC broke the news based on a staffer's diplomatic source at 2:23 a.m. Eastern time followed by Fox News at 2:30 (reporter Kelly Wright said the handover "could be taking place sometime today") and CNN at 2:33 (European editor Robin Oakley attributed it to British diplomatic sources).
Rather got on the air at 2:43, and Jennings, borrowing a colleague's cell phone because his had not yet been returned, provided a first-hand account at 2:52.
"It was spontaneous, to say the least," Jennings said. "There was no sense of grandeur, no sense that it was something historic, until we got out of the room."
NBC chose not to break into programming given that its cable network was on the story, so anchor Tom Brokaw did his first report from Baghdad for "Today."
As the news broke, media executives in New York and Washington were woken up, and bookers were soon waking up White House officials in an unsuccessful effort to get administration guests on the morning shows. Unlike President Bush's surprise Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad, when some White House reporters were asked to keep the secret so they could travel along, the press was not clued in on what amounted to a covert operation.
The networks spent considerable time and money flying in high-priced talent to cover the handover, which had been scheduled for tomorrow. But when U.S. officials decided that an earlier handover might minimize the chances of violence aimed at overshadowing the ceremony, the cloak-and-dagger stuff began. At 12:30 a.m. (8:30 a.m. Baghdad time), the Coalition Provisional Authority began calling journalists and telling them that they had half an hour to get inside the heavily guarded Green Zone for a background briefing by U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer.
Jennings and Rather were planning to spend time with U.S. troops elsewhere in Iraq when they heard of the supposed background briefing. "We looked at ourselves and said, 'What could that be about?' " Rather recalled. Something "didn't feel right," he said, so they broke off the trip and CBS staffers were dispatched to the occupation headquarters.
Amanpour was told not to bring a camera crew because a pool camera would be there.
When about 30 journalists and photographers, including a Washington Post correspondent, arrived, they were not told anything about a transfer of sovereignty.
At 2 a.m., authorities took the reporters' cell phones and placed them in brown envelopes to prevent them from calling their news organizations. The journalists were then told that the handover ceremony was about to unfold, but that the news was embargoed until 4 a.m.
By this time, the BBC was reporting the dramatic change in plans, and some of the American TV correspondents were livid that they had no way of communicating with the outside world. After the five-minute ceremony and five minutes of questions from the press, the embargo was widely ignored because the news was already out.
"In our business, seconds count," Rather said. He said he didn't mind missing the ceremony but would have been disappointed "if I had been locked in that room and found out someone else had broken the story."
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said from Baghdad that he was not that surprised. "We'd been getting word that June 30 was just a date, more of a deadline," he said. U.S. officials "had been very reluctant about the details. There was definitely a sense that it wasn't necessarily a June 30 event." The turn of events produced "an incredibly exciting day from a coverage standpoint," Cooper said.
Jennings said he had heard rumors while reporting in Lebanon and Jordan over the weekend that something might be up, but "we thought it had to do with Saddam Hussein and the transfer of legal authority from the U.S. to the Iraqis."
The degree to which the handover was orchestrated in secret became clear after the ceremony, Jennings said, when "not only was Bremer getting on a helicopter to disappear forever, but so was Dan Senor, the spokesman."
John Stack, Fox's vice president for newsgathering, said he was not perturbed at the way the ceremony was staged. "All these very smart and shrewd people were taken by surprise," he said of his colleagues in the media. The fact that U.S. officials "were able to get something accomplished that was a planned event . . . without any violence, it's a good thing."
Oddly, the day's other big photo op -- Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair talking about the transfer of sovereignty at the NATO summit in Istanbul -- was also reduced to radio-like coverage. The cable networks carried a live audio feed of the two leaders' remarks, but the pool cameras were unable to transmit live pictures.
The larger question, of course, is whether the transfer of sovereignty (despite the continued presence of nearly 140,000 U.S. troops, and the continued violence) will be viewed as a success over the coming months--a period of time that just happens to coincide with the presidential election.
The New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2004/06/28/international/28CND-IRAQ.html?hp tackles that very question:
"According to the United Nations resolution declaring an end to the occupation, [Iraqi president Sheikh] Yawar and his colleagues regained full control over their country, its people and its borders. But the reality is likely to be quite different; Iraq's new leaders, for all their assurances today, are still largely dependent on the United States and other countries for their security and solvency.
"Some 160,000 troops from the United States, Great Britain and other countries still remain here, most of them tied down fighting a guerrilla insurgency whose ferocity and ruthlessness seems to grow by the day. It is unclear how much control, if any, the new Iraqi government will exercise over the foreign troops on its soil. Indeed, it is uncertain how much practical, day-to-day control the new Iraqi government will exercise even over its own army and police."
The Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/9035265.htm?ERIGHTS=6257626302875179410philly:: also strikes a skeptical note:
"It remained to be seen, however, how much power has shifted to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. About 160,000 U.S.-led coalition troops will remain in the country as the guarantors of security, and about 150 American, British and other Western advisers will remain scattered among the government's ministries.
"Allawi's toughest task may be convincing his countrymen that he and his government, not the Americans, are in charge."
USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-06-28-bush-triumph_x.htm says the handover will help Bush--unless it doesn't:
"The surprise transfer of power in Iraq may help President Bush with voters who have turned against U.S. involvement there, but political analysts say any boost could be short-lived unless violence in Iraq abates and U.S. troops start coming home . . .
"Bush's political advisers have long denied that they were in a rush to reduce U.S. responsibilities in Iraq well before November's election. But they have watched with dismay as public support for the war has dwindled . . .
"The White House was eager to underscore the historic import of the day. It released a copy of a note to Bush from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. The note was passed to Bush by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during Monday's formal NATO session.
"'Mr. President, Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from (U.S. administrator Paul) Bremer at 10:26 a.m. Iraq time,' Rice wrote. Using a black felt-tip pen, Bush wrote on the note, 'Let Freedom Reign!'"
Slate's Fred Kaplan | http://slate.msn.com/id/2103030/ gives the administration a hat tip:
"It was a smart move to transfer sovereignty to Iraq today, two days ahead of schedule. If the Bush administration keeps doing things this smart over the next several months, the transition to self-rule might go more smoothly than anyone has had reason to suspect.
"The change of schedule didn't come as a complete surprise. Reporters in Baghdad were informed over the weekend that the handover would be moved up from Wednesday to Tuesday. Once June 30 was no longer sacrosanct, it wasn't a big step to hold the ceremony sooner still.
"Intelligence analysts expected new torrents of violence to erupt in the days leading up to the handover. With an Iraqi government put in place now, any future terrorist attacks can be reclassified from 'anti-occupation' to 'insurrectionist. . . .'
"It is therefore essential that Allawi at least appear to be an independent leader. At a minimum, every official announcement, press conference, or other public appearance in Iraq must be made by an Iraqi. Any American involved in the subject at hand should stand far in the background, if not out of sight."
Maybe that's why Bremer was so quick to jump on that airplane.
The high court also got into the terrorism issue yesterday, as the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/06/29/rulings_afford_detainees_their_day_in_court/ reports:
"The Supreme Court yesterday sharply curtailed President Bush's power to hold prisoners without trial in the war on terrorism, opening the courthouse doors to hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and also ordering judicial review of the military's justification for holding a U.S. citizen as an 'enemy combatant.'
"In the most important terrorism rulings since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the court pushed back the line that the Bush administration had drawn between national security and individual rights. It held that civilian judges have jurisdiction to oversee military prisoners and insisted that the government show why it is holding each detainee, who must in turn have an opportunity to challenge that evidence in court with help from a lawyer."
The Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-assess29jun29,1,5997448.story?coll=la-home-headlines casts the ruling as part of an effort to rein in a wartime president:
"Bush and his aides said they had a right to imprison suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, without court hearings. They asserted a prerogative to keep more secrets than before from Congress, the media and the public. And at one point, the Justice Department claimed the president could ignore laws prohibiting torture, under his 'inherent authority' as commander in chief.
"But in an unusual series of reversals in recent weeks, the Supreme Court, Congress and public opinion all have intervened to draw new limits on the president's wartime authority."
According to this CBS poll | http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/06/28/opinion/polls/main626478.shtml, we should be seeing a spate of Bush Comeback stories soon:
"Despite concerns about his handling of Iraq, and an overall approval rating of 42%, George W. Bush is still running neck and neck with Democrat John Kerry as the choice of registered voters. Growing public optimism about the nation's economy has helped lift support for the President. Kerry is the choice of 45% of registered voters, Bush the choice of 44%. This is a sharp turnaround for the Bush campaign in the span of just one month; in May, Kerry had opened up a wide 8-point lead over Bush."
Have you seen clips of the interview in which an Irish anchor challenges and interrupts Bush? There's more to the story, as Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ observes:
"It appears that the White House is furious over the interview that Carole Coleman did with George Bush on Irish TV Friday night. In fact, they're so furious about the fact that Coleman dared to follow up with critical questions that they've withdrawn a planned interview with Laura Bush.
"But here's the kicker: all the questions were submitted in advance. Bush knew exactly what she was going to ask.
"It's unbelievable. We have a president who apparently feels uncomfortable doing an interview with a foreign journalist unless he knows beforehand what she's going to ask, and then behaves childishly when she actually follows up and insists on genuine answers to the pre-scripted questions instead of the usual talking point pabulum that the American press laps up. How dare she interrupt the president of the United States and demand real answers!
"Can you imagine Tony Blair refusing to do an interview unless the questions were submitted in advance? Or John Kerry. Or Bill Clinton. Or George Bush Sr. Or Margaret Thatcher. Or pretty much any other world leader of the past 20 years?
"It's just embarrassing. Was this really the best the Republican party could do in 2000?"
The Note | http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/TheNote/TheNote.html has some Actual Veepstakes Information:
"The Kerry campaign has spoken with several senior Democrats about serving as the vice presidential team's interim chief of staff, but no one has yet been hired.
"Another team is preparing rebuttals to opposition research; they've been given a list of name to work with, including Gephardt, Vilsack, Edwards, Graham, and Biden."
Internal oppo makes sense when you're anticipating a media barrage. Gephardt and Edwards have the advantage of already having been "vetted"as candidates, but they never had to undergo Dean-like scrutiny.
Will we all be dragged through the Kerry divorce next? Dan Kennedy | http://www.bostonphoenix.com/medialog/index.asp thinks so:
"Get ready for the next John Kerry media feeding frenzy. Following the court-ordered release of Illinois Republican Senate candidate (make that former candidate) Jack Ryan's seamy divorce papers, anti-Kerry forces are now demanding the same treatment for Kerry and his first wife, Julia Thorne.
"According to Drudge, the push may come from the Tribune Company, which was in the forefront of the Ryan case because of its ownership of the Chicago Tribune. The company also owns Boston's WLVI-TV (Channel 56), which would give it legal standing. Not to rely on Drudge, but does anyone doubt that the media and the Republicans would love to see Kerry's divorce records made public, just to find out what's in there?
"I have to admit that I hadn't paid much attention to the Ryan's case, other than to share everyone's amusement at the sex-club allegations. Until yesterday, I hadn't realized they'd been released by a judge, Robert Schnider. Good Lord -- what was Schnider thinking? And of course, even though Schnider's ruling only pertains to his jurisdiction, it's going to be pretty easy to make the case that what's good for Ryan is good for Kerry.
"If Ryan and his ex-wife wanted their sealed records to remain sealed, that should have been respected. Voters should have been trusted to make what they would of the Ryans' refusal to go public. Same with Kerry and Thorne."
And finally, the Bill Buckley era is ending:
"In 1954, when Ronald Reagan was still a registered Democrat and host of 'General Electric Theater,' the 28-year-old William Frank Buckley Jr. decided to start a magazine as a standard-bearer for the fledgling conservative movement," the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/29/politics/29buckley.html?hp reports. "In the 50-year ascent of the American right since then, his publication, National Review, has been its most influential journal and Mr. Buckley has been the magazine's guiding spirit and, until today, controlling shareholder.
"Tonight, however, Mr. Buckley, 78, is giving up control. In an interview, he said he planned to relinquish his shares today to a board of trustees he had selected. Among them are his son, the humorist Christopher Buckley; the magazine's president, Thomas L. Rhodes; and Austin Bramwell, a 2000 graduate of Yale and one of the magazine's youngest current contributors."
My guess is he keeps the "guiding spirit" part.