A Surprise Trip to Iraq

Don Gonyea was one of the reporters who accompanied President Bush and senior administration officials on their secret trip to Iraq. He describes the behind-the-scenes, hush-hush affair.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

When the president of the United States travels anywhere it's a production -the 747, the helicopter, the motorcade. But what if the president wants to go somewhere and keep it a secret?

NPR's Don Gonyea has this Reporter's Notebook.

DON GONYEA: A week ago today, I was enjoying a Saturday at home while also looking ahead to a Labor Day flight with the president to a summit in Sydney, Australia. So where did I find myself come Monday?

Unidentified Man: It gives me great honor to introduce to you our commander in chief, the president of the United States.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Unidentified Man: Mr. President, welcome to Anbar, sir.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GONYEA: Anbar is Anbar province in western Iraq. Here is how I ended up there.

Last Saturday morning, I was out driving around, running some errands and getting ready for a neighborhood block party. At 11:25, my cell phone rang. Hi, Don, said the voice. It was Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino. Can you meet me somewhere, she said. Sure. Can you get to Starbucks in Dupont Circle? I said, I could. When? In an hour. I immediately suspect a trip to Iraq is in the works. I call my wife to tell her about my clandestine meeting. I tell her I don't know how long I'll be. I don't mention Iraq.

At Starbucks, Perino is seated outside. She is wearing sunglasses. Speaking softly so people nearby won't hear. She says, we're going to Iraq. When? Sunday night. I have questions but get only a few answers back. She does say it will be hot, that it's dangerous, and that for security it must be kept secret. Even Iraqi officials don't know we're coming. She says I can tell one person at NPR where I'm going and I have to do it person, not over a cell phone. Oh, and I can also tell my wife.

Sunday night at Andrews Air Force Base, there are 17 of us in the press pool. The Secret Service immediately confiscates all cell phones, BlackBerrys, laptops and cameras. Vans take us to Air Force One, which is hidden away in a hangar. We're airborne at 8:03. Eleven hours and 42 minutes later, we're in Iraq.

Perino was right. It was hot - 120 degrees. The president emerged from the plane. We called in our stories. The secret was out. We were there for eight hours total.

During a refueling stop on the way to Australia, I called home. My wife was relieved, but my 14-year-old daughter was mad, not because I'd gone to Iraq but because I hadn't told her. She said she could have kept the secret. She's since forgiven me.

SIMON: NPR's Don Gonyea.

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