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 in the United States, 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 firsthand 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.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.