Into the night: Covert travel with President Obama
By Kevin Lamarque
First there is the phone call. It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon in Washington when the phone rings. “Can you be at the White House for a meeting in four hours? I can’t tell you why, but we need you to be there.”
Hmmm … I’ve seen this show before, and I pretty much know what the deal is. President Obama is going to be traveling somewhere unsavory and everything about it will be Top Secret until he lands at his mystery destination.
A beautiful weekend here in the D.C. area is instantly transformed from worrying about my son’s soccer games to worrying about where I am going, how long I will be gone and what preparations must I make before departure? The wheels are already churning before the White House meeting that evening.
As soon as we walk into the meeting, we are told: our destination is Afghanistan. Purpose: to sign a strategic partnership agreement. Coincidentally, or not, it is the one year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
After hearing warnings about the need for secrecy we are given the details. We are to meet at a rarely used entrance to Joint Base Andrews (where Air Force One is kept) Monday evening after dark. Wheels up will be near midnight. Before going to the plane, all of our communication devices are to be confiscated. Our iPhones, Blackberrys and laptops will be returned once we are well into the flight and communication is impossible. This measure is taken to preserve the secrecy of the departure.
We are driven to the remote hangar where Air Force One sits out front, completely blacked out. We board the plane in darkness and inside the cabin, the shades are all down. We will not do the customary photo of Obama boarding the plane as we do on every other scheduled departure. Instead, at some point, we feel the plane begin to move and we know President Obama is on board and we are headed to Afghanistan.
We have been given a schedule of events. We will be on the ground for roughly six hours. In this time, Obama will chopper from Bagram Air Base to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Karzai and sign the strategic partnership agreement. He will then chopper back to Bagram and speak to troops and shake a lot of hands. Finally, he will make a live televised speech to the nation where he will spell out the current and future situation of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
We will arrive under the cover of darkness (10:30 p.m.) and we will depart under the cover in darkness (0430 a.m). It somehow all seems illicit. But due to security concerns, this is how it must be. One can only speculate as to what that says about our overall progress in Afghanistan after 10-years.
After some sleep and too many so-so movies, we begin our descent into Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul. The plane always becomes eerily quiet on these missions. You can cut the tension with a knife. Even though the press cabin dwellers are seasoned veterans, in the back, or front, of everyone’s mind is the thought “is this when our worst fears are realized?”
Relief comes as we hit the tarmac and the plane comes to halt. We immediately make our way to the choppers where flak jackets are put on for the trip into Kabul.
Communication, a photographers primary concern after making pictures, is patchy at Karzai’s presidential palace, our first stop. The ability to get pictures out to our clients quickly can produce stress in places such as Kabul. Though all four photographers on this trip (Reuters, AP, AFP, New York Times) carry various data card devices, we know they may prove useless. We also carry satellite phones, but we all know that there will never actually be time to set them up and use them. At the palace, we do get a faint and slow cellular data signal, and after checking that the embargo on Obama’s arrival has been lifted, we are all able to transmit the first pictures of Obama arriving in Afghanistan. The veil of secrecy is gone.
The rest of the trip goes fairly smoothly thanks to the White House press advance team who assist us at every turn. We return to Bagram air base where ethernet and wi-fi await. We can all breathe a sigh of relief. We are in good shape now and can rapidly and assuredly transmit our images from the trip.
But there is one last stressful challenge in the cards . Photos from Obama’s live televised address to the nation are to be taken by Reuters (me) as it is our turn in the rotation for such coverage. These speeches are now covered by one single wire service photographer who will be shooting pictures with a remote camera that sits beside the live TV camera. I will have to operate that camera from 15 feet away from it viewing what the camera is seeing over my laptop while sitting behind a blind. This allows live still picture coverage of the address while allaying White House concerns that the president might be distracted by the photographer shooting the pictures. The camera is also placed in a soundproof housing that conceals the sound of the shutter clicking. Many thanks go to New York Times Photographer Doug Mills who built the camera housing and assisted in setting the camera up for this shot. His help was invaluable.
There was one small problem I faced in doing this shot and getting the pictures out to the world quickly. The instant that the speech finished everyone there would have to run for the motorcade in order to make it to Air Force One for departure back to the United States. How would I get these pictures out in a timely fashion and also make the flight home? There was no cell signal where the speech was happening and no wifi to transmit over. The White House press advance team agreed that necessary they would allow us to transmit from Air Force One using their internet access. But that would be well after the speech ended during the long flight home. It was a solution, but certainly not a great one.
I had early on asked the White House advance team if they could supply me with an Ethernet line so that I could use Reuters remote editing software called Paneikon to transmit my pictures as I shot them. If they could arrange this line, it would allow me to shoot images that would be edited live back in the U.S. by Reuters Pictures Washington Editor In Charge Jim Bourg. I was told that the White House could not guarantee getting me a line. When we at last got to the airbase, I was told that indeed there was no line. “Well, could you get me a line?” I asked. In his full “can-do” mode, Jeff Tiller from the White House advance team made it happen. With this communication lifeline, pictures of President Obama’s live address were being edited live in Washington while he was speaking and forwarded on to the world. Success.
When Obama finished his final line of the address and walked to the motorcade, I quickly packed up my laptop and cameras. Jeff Tiller grabbed the remote camera, tripod and cables as we ran for the motorcade where all the other journalists had been pre-loaded in the van ready to move. As we arrived at Air Force One my cell phone lit up with a message that the pictures from the address had been good and lots were already out on the wire.
Darkness was giving way to daylight, and Air Force one made a steep and rapid ascent from Afghanistan. In the press cabin, a much appreciated beer awaited me, along with some sleep and many more so-so movies during the 14 hour flight home.
These covert trips carry a special excitement, and angst. It is a great relief to have them behind you, job done!