VIDEO: NBC's James Hattori reports.
Nov. 27 — The president's trip required weeks of planning and top secrecy. NBC's James Hattori reports.
updated 11/28/2003 12:22:23 PM ET 2003-11-28T17:22:23

From Texas to Washington to Baghdad, intense secrecy was the trademark of President Bush’s unannounced Thanksgiving Day visit to Iraq.

“I was fully prepared to turn this baby around, come home,” if news of his visit had leaked before he landed in Iraq, Bush said aboard Air Force One.

Bush said he had been “the biggest skeptic of all” in the weeks of secret planning that went into the high-risk journey. He even sat down with the pilot of Air Force One, Col. Mark Tillman, to ask whether the mission could be done safely.

“Our planners worked to answer every question,” Bush said. “I had a lot of questions.”

He questioned whether he could get in and out of Baghdad safely. He also worried whether his visit would put anyone else in harm’s way or “cause an enemy to react and therefore jeopardize somebody else’s life.”

Three hours before landing in Baghdad, the president checked with the Secret Service again and was reassured that the secret was intact. News broadcasts still said he was celebrating Thanksgiving Day with dinner with his family at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as the press had been told by White House officials.

ONE CLOSE CALL

At one point en route, the secret almost slipped when the pilot of a British Airways jetliner spotted the plane and asked on the radio, “Did I just see Air Force One?” After moments of silence, Tillman responded, “Gulf Stream Five” — referring to a much smaller plane.

“Oh,” replied the British pilot, likely aware that something was afoot. But the information went no farther.

Indeed, the trip remained a secret around the world until reporters on Bush’s plane were allowed to file their first bulletins once Air Force One had safely lifted off from the Baghdad airport.

On the approach to Baghdad, Bush went into the cockpit and watched Tillman bring Air Force One down, its lights off and window shades pulled down to prevent anyone from spotting it.

If security had been broken, Bush said, that would have been the moment when the plane was most vulnerable, even though the president’s plane is defended with sophisticated devices to ward off missiles.

SECRET SERVICE AGENTS IN THE DARK

Most of the Secret Service agents guarding his Texas ranch were not informed the president had slipped away, officials said. Agents remained at their posts as Bush was driven away in an unmarked vehicle with tinted windows, a ball cap pulled down over his face. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was also in the car and wore a cap, too.

“We looked like a normal couple,” Bush recounted later, talking with reporters in the office on his plane. When Bush and Rice arrived at the airport at Texas State Technical College, a former military base, Bush pulled the cap even lower and slouched down to avoid being recognized by a guard at the gate.

The level of secrecy — the tightest in recent memory — was intended to prevent terrorists and Saddam Hussein loyalists from trying to take a shot at the president.

“If this breaks while we’re in the air, we’re turning around,” White House communications director Dan Bartlett said.

Bush had told his wife, Laura, during a trip to Asia last month that he was considering going to Baghdad. He said he kept her informed as the planning progressed, but there was still some doubt Wednesday morning, and she asked him if he was going.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going.’ She knew I was going, planning on going. I said it looks like we’re on,” Bush said.

Bush’s daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were not informed until just hour before he left. His parents, former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara, were not told until after they arrived for Thanksgiving dinner, the president said.

WEEKS OF PLANNING

Bush said the idea of the trip to Iraq was first raised by chief of staff Andrew Card in mid-October. Bush said he replied, “Yeah, I would [want to do it], except I don’t want to go if it puts anybody in harm’s way. I said it’s very essential that I fully understand all aspects of the trip, starting with whether or not we could get in and out safely.”

While at his ranch, Bush and Card used code words when talking about the impending trip. The departure of Bush’s plane from Texas was explained by the ruse that it needed maintenance in Washington.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, a military analyst, said he thought the risks “were absolutely minimal as long as secrecy could be maintained. And obviously all the stops were pulled out to keep this secret.”

Shepperd said other factors lowering the risk were the fact that Bush’s plane landed at night, lowering the threat of heat-seeking missiles, and that it has the latest available equipment to repel such attacks.

“I think his security people probably almost had a heart attack when it was revealed, because of the risk,” Shepperd said.

SHOCK AND AWE

The trip left several out-of-the-loop aides and even Secret Service agents, who learned about it at the same time as the rest of the world, stunned and a some a bit angry.

Vice President Dick Cheney was told ahead of time. Only a handful of aides knew in advance; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was informed last week. Secretary of State Colin Powell also was in the loop, as was Rice, officials said. Rice informed her deputy, Stephen Hadley, on Wednesday.

No member of Congress was informed in advance. White House deputy press secretary Claire Buchan did not know about the trip when she briefed reporters in Crawford on the president’s Thanksgiving Day plans.

Card invited two reporters on the trip Tuesday night on the condition that they keep it secret. Other reporters and photographers were brought into the secret Wednesday, some of them searched out by White House aides in Texas just hours before the president’s departure. In all, the press contingent was five reporters, a television producer with a two-member camera crew, and five still photographers.

Bush made the 45-minute ride from the ranch to the airport in an unmarked vehicle. He joked about encountering traffic for the first time in three years, Bartlett said. Usually the president’s motorcade speeds through red lights and traffic jams.

The president stopped at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington to change planes and pick up some aides. The switch took place in a huge hangar where the transfer was hidden from view.

Standing at the top of his plane’s steps at Andrews, Bush ordered reporters not to break telephone silence. He held his thumb and little finger to his face as if talking on the phone and mouthed the words, “No calls, got it?”

He emphasized the point by slashing his hand in front of his throat and again mouthing “no calls.”

His order was not necessary. Reporters and photographers who had accompanied him from Texas were asked to take the batteries out of their phones.

The reporters who joined in Washington after gathering at a hotel near the base were taken in an unmarked van to Air Force One’s hangar. They were ordered to surrender their cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices, stashing them in yellow manila-size envelopes held by security officials until the plane was airborne.

Passengers were ordered to keep the plane’s window blinds closed throughout the flight and were told that the aircraft would be flying in radio silence and would not be identified by its usual call sign, Air Force One.

The airport in Baghdad was blackened, and Air Force One, once on the ground, could not be seen. Bush’s motorcade traveled from the plane to the mess hall with lights out on most vehicles.

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