The Digital Journalist
A Clandestine Trip to Baghdad
December 2003

by Chris Usher

3:45 pm CST--Deputy Director of Presidential Advance Steve Atkiss catches up to me in the parking lot of the Residence Inn in Waco, TX and motions for me to get in his Ford Supercab Pickup. Pablo Martinez of AP appears from the lobby and jumps in the back as well (we both are convinced that he had tickets for Friday's Texas Tech vs Texas A&M game for us). As he drives slowly around the block he starts in, "I'm not kidding, but in two hours the President is going to Baghdad. And we're going with him.... Really! I need you to swear not to tell ANYONE --if you have dinner plans, do not cancel them. If you can, just turn your cell phone off. Don't run around or do anything unusual to draw any attention. We'll meet at the parking lot of the baseball stadium at 5:30. From there we will go to Texas State Technical College and board AF-1 -- we would like it if you could keep your cameras and equipment discreet so you guys look like staff." Needless to say, we are skeptical of a ruse or practical joke, but Atkiss is convincing enough. He asks if we know where he can find the other still photographers on the trip: Larry Downing, Khue Bui, and Tim Sloan. Pablo and I return to our rooms for a shower and some quick preparation.

Press Corps still photographers Pablo Martinez Monsivais of AP; Khue Bui of Newsweek; and Larry Downing of Reuters use their cell phones for the last time while waiting in the parking lot of the Baylor University baseball stadium for the rest of the travel pool.

Photo by Chris Usher/Apix
5:00 pm CST: I meet with Khue Bui of Newsweek and Pablo in the Residence Inn Parking lot at Pablo's rental SUV. We all agree that the situation at hand is probably the real deal, but nevertheless we all retain a smidgen of skepticism on the outside chance that we are the subjects of a practical joke of major proportions! We quickly load our gear and unanimously decide to go to the rendezvous point early.

5:10 pm CST: As we arrive at the ball stadium we notice Larry Downing of Reuters already waiting in his truck. Soon Richard Keil of Bloomberg and Mike Allen of the Washington Post arrive. The topic of conversation is the whereabouts of Tim Sloan of AFP who has still yet to be found -- many stories of sorrow are concocted on the spot as we speculate on how Tim will take the news that he missed such an occasion.

5:30 pm CST: White House photographer Tina Hager and Steve Atkiss arrive. We all agree to give Tim one last chance by going by his hotel room one last time. Our two-car motorcade, comprised of Pablo and Steve's trucks, pulls around to a back street behind the hotel. As Steve and Richard go to find Tim, another white Jeep Cherokee pulls behind us. As we look back at the occupants, we see some serious White House senior staff members: Joe Hagin, the White House deputy chief of staff; White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett; and Blake Gottesman, the president's personal aide. At this point we know it's for real. Minutes later Steve returns successfully with a grateful Tim Sloan in tow.

5:45 pm CST: We depart in our non-descript three car motorcade and blend into the heavy Thanksgiving traffic on I-35 north. Taking an obviously unusual and lengthy route to the airfield, we are cleared through the gate and driven directly to the stairs of a completely dark AF-1.

Air Force One--Press Corps members Richard "Stretch" Keil of Bloomberg News and Fox News correspondant Jim Angle talk during the flight from Waco to Andrews Air Force base as AFP still photographer Tim Sloan sleeps across the aisle from photographers Pablo Martinez Monsivais of AP and Khue Bui of Newsweek.

Photo by Chris Usher/Apix
6:10 pm CST: Boarding quickly, we are greeted in the press cabin by Joe Hagin. After a few jokes and some light talk of the weightiness of the operation he asks us to remove the batteries from our cell phones to ensure that we are not tracked. During the next hour, some more light talk by all, generally concentrating on what the reactions of our fellow photo comrades will be when they realize where we are.

7:05 pm CST: In an unusual move, all doors to the press cabin are closed as we hear people boarding and the agents take their positions in the fore cabin. We also realize that all the cabin windows are closed as well.

7:25 PM CST: We begin to roll with a take-off just a minute later. Some peek through a sliver of a raised window shade to announce that we are flying dark with no wing lights at all.

8:30 PM CST: As Terminator 3 plays in the Press cabin and the secret service agents in the fore cabin watch Open Range, the flight card is passed back stating that we are clipping at 665 mph (just 35 mph short of the speed of sound!) over West Virginia at 29,000ft with a 10:30 pm EST arrival at Andrews AFB.

10:30 PM EST: Upon landing, we taxi into the huge hangar that houses both modified jumbo 747's used as AF-1. As we deplane from AF1-28000 into the extremely well lit environment, we are asked not to shoot any pictures as we walk across to AF1-29000. A handful of air force personnel are stationed here and there about the space. As we round the nose of our replacement plane we look up on the steps to see President Bush in a leather flight jacket and presidential ball cap. With a stern but lilting look he makes the international sign language for "telephone" with his clenched left hand, thumb and pinky extended. With his other hand, the President makes the international symbol for "cut it off" with a flattened hand sawing back and forth across his Adam's apple combined with the continuous "no" shake of his head. He makes it a point to make eye contact with each of us as we walk past. Waiting on board are a handful of other fortunate journalists who got the call in Washington -- A Fox TV crew composed of Jim Angle, David Shott, Craig Savage and John Wallace, plus writers Terry Hunt of AP and Steve Holland of Reuters.

Air Force One--Traveling in total darkness with only crescent moon slivers of light to illuminate the cabin of Air Force One, Terry Hunt of AP writes about being AWOL with the President on Thanksgiving.

Photo by Chris Usher/Apix
11:05 PM EST: Once again, under closed windows and doors, the exterior lightless, we take off into the night bound for Baghdad.

(Hours pass as AF1 flies in an unknown-to-us flight path towards Baghdad)

4:30 PM IT (8:30 AM EST): Dan Bartlett conducts a briefing on the schedule and what events will take place. He informs us that we will be on the ground no more than 2 1/2 hours during which time the President will meet with 600 troops from the 1st Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne at a Thanksgiving event already scheduled with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq, and Chief U.S. Civilian Administrator L. Paul Bremer. He will then meet privately with military staff and finally meet with the new Iraqi Council.

After a clandestine flight on Air Force One from Waco, TX, known only to a few key White House staffers and support personnel, President George W. Bush visits the troops of the 1st Armored Division for a Thanksgiving dinner in a building at Baghdad Airport.

Photo by Chris Usher/Apix
5:30 PM IT: Air Force One flight staff bring us a stack of camouflage flak jackets that were apparently brand new (Pablo noticed that they carried a May 2003 manufacture date). We all help each out with the fitting of the "ballistic vests." Khue, Mike Allen (and his plastic throwaway camera) and I all take pictures of the event.

6:30 PM IT: Air Force One touches down at Baghdad International Airport without any irregularity, taxis a short while and shuts down engines. (At the time of this writing, the fact that we spiraled in on the landing was off the record. It was later made part of the official record.) As we emerge in the darkness we are greeted by a small motorcade of vans that quickly hurtle us across a long and very open section of the airport. Pulling in by a building we hurry into a large hall bedecked with soldiers in desert camouflage, much food, a large 4 foot cornucopia fashioned from pastry and a few cut out Thanksgiving decorations. Paul Bremer and General Sanchez are already on stage and immediately start the event. The still photographers all hustle to get up front, near the podium. I position myself so that when the President takes the stage, I can shoot him through the cheering soldiers and also turn around and get the soldiers' reaction. As I take my position, Samantha Appleton says to me, "Who are you here with?" And I say "Time." And she says, "No, WHO are you here WITH??" I say, "Take a guess." Before I can answer, Bush comes on stage. The place erupts, and the rest is history.

While President George W. Bush meets with the Iraqi governing council members, Press Corps photographer for Time magazine Chris Usher hams it up with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq.

Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP for Apix
8:30 PM IT: After the event with the soldiers and the requisite photo-op moments, Bush meets with a handful of high ranking officials stationed in Baghdad and then with the Iraqi governing council members. As he meets with the Iraqis, we mill about with the generals in the lounge area. Larry Downing says, "Hey General Sanchez, how about challenge coins for the boys?" Sanchez tips his hand backwards, palm upward, over his shoulder. Without any further conversation, his bodyguard reaches into a pouch on his belt and produces a handful of challenge coins which he drops like poker chips into Sanchez' palm. With a casual, under-his-breath "here ya go", he distributes the coins among the stills. At this point I hand my Leica to Tim Sloan and say to Sanchez, "General, do you mind?" When he says, "not at all," I get my glory shot.

8:45 PM IT: At this point we are hurried upstairs for the photo spray at the bottom of Bush's meeting with the Iraqis. Steve Atkiss radios to the SS agent inside the room, "I have 5 photographers outside to come in." The agent replies, "okay." Which Atkiss takes to mean, "okay come in" and opens the door. Larry Downing being the consummate professional that he is, is the first to rush in the door, with me right behind. As I scan the room for Bush's location, he is right in front of us, rising from his chair saying, "NO! I'm not ready." I stop in my tracks at the threshold and call out, "Larry, come back!!" Larry quickly retraces his steps under Bush's baleful glare. A minute later, we are permitted to enter and I shoot off 10 quick frames before being hustled back to the motorcade.

8:53 PM IT: We are wheels up and on our way home. As soon as we clear Iraqi airspace, a relieved and smiling Joe Hagin joins us and we all relive the last sixteen hours. Bush invites the "pens" forward into his office - but no stills or cameras.

10:00 PM IT (2:00 PM EST): The lines of communication from AF-1 are opened so that writers and photographers can file their stories and photos.

12:30 AM EST: We touch down at Andrews to refuel and allow those who boarded at Andrews to deplane. I send my film and CDs with Craig Savage and John Wallace to my agent, waiting outside the base.

4:30 AM CST: We land in Waco, TX.

5:10 AM CST: Not able to find a bar still open, everyone heads back to their hotel. I for one, am fast asleep instantly.

© Chris Usher

Freelance Photographer Chris Usher is President and co-founder of Apix, a photo agency that represents photographers and their projects. He covered the trip to Baghdad for Time Magazine. View Chris' full selection of photos from Baghdad.