The cryptic call summoning reporters to the White House came at 12:19 p.m. Sunday from a private number and lasted only 25 seconds. By the following night, Air Force One was in the air.
In the next 36 hours, the 13-member pool of reporters who travel wherever the president goes would spend almost 28 hours in the air, fly in dual-rotor Chinook helicopters across the Hindu Kush mountain range, visit the presidential palace in Kabul, cover an address to the nation. All of it done under a cover of darkness.
President Barack Obama’s trip to Afghanistan was wrapped in secrecy. There was no arrival ceremony and no gaggle of dignitaries that typically mark a visit by the leader of the U.S. The cloak-and-dagger-like procedures required to keep the trip a surprise offer a glimpse into how the president can keep moving in a dangerous world.
Afghan insurgents put an exclamation point on the security imperative. Within hours of Obama’s departure from Bagram Airfield, they mounted coordinated attacks that killed six civilians in Kabul. The Taliban, claiming responsibility, said it was in response to the president’s trip.
The protocol was established under former President George W. Bush for his trips to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s continued under Obama, who has now been to Afghanistan three times and to Iraq once.
“Whenever the president travels to a war zone, it’s necessary to take additional security precautions, and we are always guided by security professionals in determining those arrangements,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, who accompanied Obama on the trip.
For this flight it began for reporters on April 29, when a White House aide called members of what is known as the traveling pool to a 5 p.m. meeting in the office of press secretary Jay Carney. The main question for the meeting was the destination. The answer from Carney and White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer came quickly: Afghanistan.
The president would be flying overnight to Bagram Airfield, visiting on the anniversary of the killing of al- Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He would meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace to sign a strategic partnership agreement that had been under negotiation for more 20 months. Obama would then return to Bagram, meet with troops and deliver an address to the nation Tuesday evening before returning home.
The safety of the president and all those traveling with him would be jeopardized if word leaked. The reporters were instructed to tell one editor, and to do so either in person or by land-line telephone. No mobile phone calls, no e-mails.
The news pool was told to report at 10 p.m. April 30 at Joint Base Andrews just outside of Washington and given directions to a different entrance than the one usually used for presidential trips. Arrival was to be only by personal vehicle.
The entrance gate was unlit and as a group we drove to a dark parking lot on the base. Our bags were checked by security officers and we handed over all our communications devices. We boarded a blue school bus along with several members of the White House staff, including top national security council aides Denis McDonough and Rhodes, deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco and senior White House adviser David Plouffe.
The shades were drawn on Air Force One when the bus arrived and would remain that way until after leaving Afghanistan. Reporters never saw Obama board. Shortly after midnight, the plane moved on the tarmac and at 12:09 a.m. Air Force One was wheels up.
About an hour into the 13 1/2-hour flight, computers, phones and tablets were returned. With a little more than two hours to go before landing, administration officials gave a briefing about the trip, the president’s address and the agreement he’d be signing.
The reporters also got a security briefing: which helicopters to board from Bagram to Kabul and the type of body armor we had the option of wearing.
As the plane began its descent into Bagram, all the interior and exterior lights on the plane were turned off. Minutes later, the landing alert sounded and soon Air Force One touched down at 10:20 p.m. in Afghanistan, 1:50 p.m. Washington time.
The news of our trip was still embargoed. Reporters weren’t allowed to communicate until the arrival in Kabul. Local Afghan reporters had already been gathered at the presidential palace. To prevent the story from leaking, they were told that they would be covering a meeting between Karzai and a delegation of U.S. members of Congress.
On the Ground
The president walked off the plane and onto the tarmac in Afghanistan on a clear, bright-mooned, starry night. Wearing a long black trench coat, he was greeted by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti.
The reporting pool was instructed to run to helicopter No. 4. Each seat in the Boeing Co. CH-47 Chinook was equipped with a 25-pound camouflaged armored vest and a plastic bag that included earplugs, a tactical light and a yellow envelope labeled “Motion sickness bag: For use during moments of stomach upset.”
Over the Mountains
Moments later, the unlit Chinook was in the air for a 30-minute lift to Kabul. In the moonlight, the contours of the Hindu Kush mountain range were visible. The Marines on board watched the ground below. About 20 minutes into the flight lights were flickering on the ground below and some high-rise buildings were visible. Oddly, there were several brightly-lit structures with flashing colors.
Once on the ground, Marines standing on the unlit field directed us into armored vans for the 1.1-mile, 22-vehicle convoy to the palace. During the drive, we began establishing connections with our news organizations so that when Carney gave the word, we could report that the president was in Afghanistan.
By the time the reporters all made contact with Washington, we were standing in the courtyard of the presidential palace. Correspondents from Bloomberg, the Associated Press and Reuters gathered with Carney, who counted to three and said, “Go.”
The news was out and we were officially in Afghanistan.
Maintaining secrecy is one of the biggest challenges in planning such trips. Several of us who traveled this week were also on a December 2010 unannounced visit to Afghanistan, where news of the president’s visit leaked before we even landed. The White House as well as the news organizations went to great lengths to make sure that didn’t happen again.
Still, an Afghan-based news channel, TOLOnews had already reported Obama’s arrival -- several hours before Air Force One landed. The story spread on Twitter and the World Wide Web. Because the president was still in the air, the White House released a carefully worded denial and the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan used Twitter to say “Reports that President Obama is in Kabul are false.”
Once Obama and Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the entourage was rushed out of the palace back into the convoys to reload into the helicopters for the return trip to Bagram.
While news of the president’s visit was no longer secret, security was no less an issue. We again flew in darkness across a lit-up Kabul and back through the mountains.
In the Hangar
The rest of the trip was spent in a hangar on the base. Obama delivered remarks to the troops, visited with wounded servicemen and women and handed out 10 Purple Hearts.
Finally, along with more than a dozen members of the military, we watched on a live television feed as the president, who was in an adjacent hangar, addressed the U.S. public. He spoke at roughly the same time of day that, one year earlier, Navy SEALs were conducting the raid that killed bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
As the president was ending his remarks, we were being rushed to gather our belongings. The sun would soon be rising. The outlines of the mountain ranges were becoming clearer. Staff and press were hurried onto the airplane. As during our departure from Andrews less than 24 hours earlier, the shades were all drawn and we never saw the president board.
At 4:30 a.m. local time, 8 p.m. in Washington, we felt the plane’s wheels lift off Afghan soil. Obama had spent six hours and 10 minutes on the ground.