Can you keep a secret?

December 10, 2010

Want to hear a secret?

“U.S. President Barack Obama will make an unannounced visit to Afghanistan but you cannot tell anyone.” Those seemed like simple enough guidelines, but it certainly wouldn’t end up that way.

President Barack Obama meets with troops at Bagram Air Base, December 3, 2010.    REUTERS/Jim Young

It started with a call from Washington Editor in Charge Jim Bourg during my shift at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. “I never know how to start these kind of conversations…” he said. “You know when we have these trips where we really can’t talk about it?” I had a feeling I knew where this was headed. He kind of paused a bit trying to find the words to say it, without really saying it. But I stopped him and said, “I know where you are going with this and you don’t have to go any further.” Obama would make a surprise visit to Afghanistan. I was careful not to answer his questions out loud, so that anyone standing by wouldn’t figure out the questions or the subject matter, but we were on the same page. He just said it was tomorrow night. The trip would be about 30 hours there and back, with 25 of those hours in the air. I would finish my shift as usual and go to see him in the office to get more details.

We went through the rough details, it was almost the same as Obama’s last announced trip to Afghanistan when I went with him back in late March this year. This would be my fourth such Presidential trip, three times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. There is always a huge veil of secrecy, rightfully so.

I went home to install some new global aircards to file in Afghanistan and to test the BGAN Satphone in the parking lot next to my house. I didn’t think we would have time to set it up since we move around so fast when we go on these trips. But you have to be prepared for any scenario, especially after the communication nightmares from our last trip to Afghanistan.

I finally got to bed at 2am after making sure all my equipment was working and all my gear was packed and ready to go. I would be up again after four hours of sleep. I received an email Wednesday night to attend a meeting at the White House at 1pm the next day with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and the other journalists asked to go on this trip. It was brief with many of the same details as the last secret visit. We of course could not tell anyone. So I headed home to grab my things, we had to meet at Andrews Air Force Base in just a few hours.

My daughter was not feeling very well so I laid on the couch with her as she watched cartoons. She asked me if I had to work that day and even if I could tell her where I was going. I knew she would just want me to lay on the couch with her. I told her yes but I would be back soon.

The other three photographers agreed to meet at a restaurant at 7:30 pm just outside the gate where we would be escorted in. We handed over all our cameras, laptop, and BlackBerrys, just like our last trip, and boarded a very cold bus to wait in a parking for all the travelers.

At 8:30pm, we headed over to the hanger where the two Air Force One planes are housed. The shades were drawn and just before 10pm the plane started to taxi. Obama must have finally boarded and a few minutes later we were on our way. 13 hours to Afghanistan non-stop. I hoped to get a few hours sleep. We just got back from an 11 day Presidential trip to Asia a couple of weeks back and I only recently got over the dreaded jetlag. I was not sure this trip was going to help me get on a normal sleep schedule.

I took some notes as we were briefed on the plane by Gibbs about the whole planned schedule, about 90 minutes out from our destination. During the meeting someone passed a message that there was a bad weather call and we would not be able to helicopter to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul or motorcade through the streets to the Presidential Palace as planned. Everything we just went through was scrapped and we would now hold everything at Bagram Air Base. That would cut our already brief visit dramatically.

Afghanistan schedule.  REUTERS/Jim Young

Instead of a face-to-face meeting between Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Palace in Kabul, they would video conference from the Base. Even that was eventually canceled.

After landing at 8:35pm local time in the dark with the window shades drawn, Air Force One taxied to the hangar but there was massive confusion developing that someone had broken the embargo of our trip. Reporters were getting word that several major news outlets were erroneously reporting that Obama had already arrived in Afghanistan at least 30 minutes before we even landed and he was going to address troops in Kabul, which was never scheduled to happen. There was also a pool video feed of a presidential podium in a hangar full of troops that was circulating among news outlets, further fueling the rumors. This seriously jeopardized the trip. The guidance from the White House was that no one is allowed to announce that Obama was in Afghanistan until much later than when we actually touched down. There was an embargo established by the White House for all our safety which was unreportable until we were given word by the staff. It could have been as long as 45 minutes after our arrival on Afghan soil. Reporters were scrambling to get the ruling from the White House that the trip could now be reported. My first thought was that they may just turn the plane around and head back to the United States.

Journalists are seen on the plane headed for Afghanistan, December 3, 2010.  REUTERS/Jim Young

Security plans and the embargo were meant to ensure the safety of the President but it seemed all bets were off. I had written an email on the flight over, addressed to editors and our picture desks in Washington and Singapore that we were here, including rough details of the trip and a heads up that pictures were coming. Of course they were unaware this was happening, but the draft was saved and not to be sent until the embargo was lifted by the White House. But with the news already broken back in the U.S., we were given the go ahead to confirm our arrival. We were on the ground and we would stay so that Obama could meet with the troops.

We stepped out under the wing of Air Force One to photograph Obama stepping off the plane and it was completely dark. It was over pretty quickly and we were ushered into the hangar where Obama would speak to almost 4,000 troops.

Obama was meeting with wounded soldiers privately and awarded some purple hearts but there was no coverage for the travel pool, so we sat and waited in the hangar for our one and only event. They had set up some tables and wifi for us and we could file some pictures of his arrival but the internet was very slow.
I took a minute to call my wife to tell her where I was. I also spoke to our Global Picture Desk and let them know that the pictures would be coming soon, but with the file time being so short, I might not have very much time to work on my pictures.

His speech was only scheduled to be about 15 minutes and we were expected to be given 10 minutes of file time after he worked the ropeline greeting troops. Obama arrived on stage, and about two minutes after he started speaking I was filing pictures – but the internet was almost going nowhere. It seemed someone was uploading video on the line and it was killing the bandwidth. I queued up 6-7 pictures, walked away from my computer and hoped for the best on the internet speed.

President Barack Obama meets with troops at Bagram Air Base, December 3, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young

Obama was wrapping up his speech and I took a position for him to come off stage to greet the troops. Now it became tricky. How long should I stay with the President and shoot him greeting troops (knowing how little file time they had given us) or should I file? Time was very precious. I had some pictures ready to go but I decided to hold out on a spot at the end of the ropeline.

President Barack Obama meets with troops at Bagram Air Base, December 3, 2010.    REUTERS/Jim Young

This could be a mistake given how much time we would have to file. Obama came right up on me, in my corner, as I leaned way back onto a Secret Service agent to squeeze him into the photo.

President Barack Obama meets with troops at Bagram Air Base, December 3, 2010.    REUTERS/Jim Young

It was time to run over to my computer and thankfully some of the earlier pictures had transmitted to our desk in Singapore. But the internet was very, very slow, and then it crashed. This was the worst possible time, but I just kept editing the pictures and checked back on it to see if it was going again. It seemed it was moving a bit faster. I made the files small to squeeze in as many transmissions as possible because you never really know how much file time you will really get. It’s never exactly what they tell you it will be. You just pray it isn’t less than the 10 minutes they are promising. You just put your head down and go as fast as possible and keep filing until it is either done or until they pull the plug. Thankfully, Obama was given a briefing backstage adding a few valuable minutes to our file time. In March, we were on the ground for 6 hours and that seemed like a blink of an eye, this time we were there for half of that.

Just as my last picture was transmitting, the White House staff came to let us know it was time to wrap it up and head to the plane. The tarmac was so dark that you could barely make out Air Force One or even the agents posted around the plane. A few moments later we took off. We would refuel in Germany in seven hours, then it was another 8 hours after that to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. We landed at 6:15am, 32 hours after this all started. Flying more than 13,000 miles makes for a very long day for 30 minutes of actual work. I crawled into bed at 7am for a couple hours of sleep.

What day was it any way?

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