Bush's Top-Secret Visit to Baghdad

CRAWFORD, Texas -- For more than five weeks, the president's inner circle and top security advisers kept the idea to themselves. During a trip to Asia in October, President George W. Bush had asked his most trusted aides to try to fly him to Baghdad, Iraq, for Thanksgiving dinner with U.S. troops.

There hadn't been a secretive presidential trip to a war zone in decades, and if it was to work, they agreed, not even their deputies could know.

That was the start of a trip Thursday in which the president of the United States slipped away from his Texas ranch and into Baghdad undetected, surprising hundreds of U.S. troops, the news media -- and his own parents, who came here for Thanksgiving dinner.

"I had to tell my family, that would be my wife and daughters, that I would not be there for Thanksgiving," Bush recounted to reporters during the return trip. "I assured them I wouldn't be going unless it wasn't well thought out and well planned." He asked them to save him leftovers.

Not even the president's parents -- former President and Barbara Bush -- were entrusted with the plan. They arrived at the Bush ranch in Crawford to learn that their son had left the night before.

Historians said there were few precedents for such a trip. The most recent appears to have been a 1967 Christmas visit by Lyndon Johnson to troops in Vietnam; reporters traveling with LBJ did not know they were in Saigon until the plane landed.

Similarly, the news media were kept in the dark about Bush's trip until the last minute, and then sworn to secrecy.

The crew had prepared Air Force One for a flight to Washington, believing it was only a maintenance flight. They were as surprised as the Secret Service when the president boarded, coming up the rear stairs instead of his usual gangway at the front. The plane took off without running lights and with all the window shades pulled.

A few minutes after liftoff, reporters were told the president had gone to sleep.

At one point during the 10 1/2-hour flight, the stealth mission was almost revealed when the pilot of a British Airways jetliner spotted the presidential plane with its distinctive blue and gold paint design.

On the open radio, the pilot asked, "Did I just see Air Force One?" After moments of silence, the Air Force One pilot responded over the radio by identifying himself as a much smaller aircraft: "Gulfstream 5."

"Oh," replied the British pilot. If the British Airways pilot suspected otherwise, he apparently decided to bite his tongue.

During the descent and landing, the most dangerous part of the journey, Bush decided to ride in the cockpit.

Bush had already been hustled into an SUV by the time the pool reporters scrambled out of the plane.

Two and a half hours later, the weary reporters scrambled back up the stairs. As Air Force One prepared to take off for the return flight, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett poked his head into the press cabin and said he believed the secret held. As soon as they reached 3,000 meters, they would release the news to the world.

Shortly after takeoff, the first CNN bulletin announcing the trip was relayed onto the Air Force One audio system. The pool reporters were provided air phones to call their news organizations -- for the first time in more than 13 hours.