Today's Papers

Surprise, Surprise

Everybody leads with President Bush’s surprise visit to Baghdad Thursday, where he met up with troops to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The two-and-a-half hour visit, described as one of the most secretive presidential jaunts in history, marked the first time an American president has visited Iraq.

Speaking to a crowd of 600 soldiers gathered for dinner at a makeshift base at Baghdad International Airport, a “misty-eyed” Bush told the troops they were “defeating terrorists here in Iraq so that we don’t have to face them in our own country.”

“By helping the Iraqi people become free, you’re helping change a troubled and violent part of the world,” Bush said. ” By helping to build a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East, you are defending the American people from danger, and we are grateful.”

While in Baghdad, Bush also briefly met with members of the Iraqi Governing Council, according to the papers.

The shroud of secrecy around the visit came off like a scene from an Ian Fleming novel, the Los Angeles Times reports. According to the papers, the trip had been in the works for around six weeks, and, given the state of security in Baghdad, the White House did virtually everything to keep it quiet—including fibbing to reporters. Aides in the know talked of the trip only on secure phone lines, according to the New York Times, while as late as Wednesday, reporters were being fed very specific details of what would have been the president’s Thanksgiving menu at his Texas ranch. (According to the Associated Press, Bush had been set to dine on a menu of “free range turkey.”)

On Wednesday afternoon, Bush, who wore a baseball cap as a disguise, was spirited out of his Texas ranch in an unmarked car, sans much of his usual security detail. According to the papers, the caravan got stuck in traffic (something a president doesn’t experience very often, aides said), before taking off in Air Force One. White House officials told reporters (at least those not in the know) that the president’s plane had to return to Washington for routine maintenance, the Washington Post reports.

The plane, which flew under a fake call name, landed in Baghdad with its running lights off and escorted by fighter jets. According to the WP, the president’s aides had rejected the idea of flying incognito in a military plane. One reason: Air Force One is among the safest aircrafts on the planet, a separate story notes. Among other things, the plane is outfitted with the ability to guard against surface to air missiles, which damaged a cargo plane en route to Baghdad last week. Nevertheless, troops were deployed to guard against another attack, just in case—though no one, according to the LAT, was told who or what they were guarding.

Who knew about the trip? Bush told reporters yesterday that he had told his wife and twin daughters—but not his parents, who were set to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the ranch. And only a few U.S. officials knew of the surprise, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who accompanied Bush to Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the White House hand picked 13 reporters for the trip—something that isn’t sitting well with other reporters on the beat, some of whom had gone home to their families after being told of a slow news day by administration officials. CNN, according to the WP’s Howard Kurtz, pulled its reporters from the White House pool after being led to believe that “no further news would be made.” The reporters summoned for the trip were ordered not to tell their employers or families, and they were forbidden to file their stories until after Bush had departed Baghdad. The whole affair, says the NYT’s Washington bureau chief, amounts to “deliberate deception.”

In an analysis piece, the WP’s Dana Milbank predicts the images from yesterday’s surprise visit will be a defining moment of Bush’s term in office, ranking with photos of Bush’s visit to Ground Zero in 2001 and his visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln last May. “It is too soon to know whether the image of Bush in his Army jacket yesterday will become a symbol of strong leadership or a symbol of unwarranted bravado,” Milbank writes. “But one thing is certain. Bush’s Thanksgiving Day surprise ties him, for better or worse, ever more tightly to the outcome of the Iraq struggle.”

Following up on yesterday’s stories, the NYT and WP front word that U.S. officials are now reconsidering the decision against direct elections in Iraq next year in attempt to appease Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most powerful cleric. Yesterday, Sistani met with the chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, who called the cleric’s objections to the current U.S. plan of holding caucuses instead of direct ballots “logical and reasonable.” The WP reports that Bush, in his meeting with council members in Baghdad yesterday, said that he would be willing to accept revisions to the plan, although he didn’t directly endorse the idea of elections.

USA Today online gives big play to word from a “top counterterrorism official” that al-Qaida abandoned plans for smaller attacks on the United States. this year in favor of plotting a “more spectacular assault” similar to 9/11. Recent intercepts suggest the group is still interested in using aircraft as missiles, but some of the network’s operatives believe that a chemical or biological attack is the best way to top the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the paper says.

Meanwhile, the NYT picks up on the arrests of two suspected terrorists in Britain, including one who had ties to “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and “al-Qaida groups.”

The LAT fronts word that the International Atomic Energy Agency is investigating possible ties between Iran’s nuclear program and Pakistan after discovering that Iran’s uranium-enrichment program uses technology that is virtually identical to Pakistan’s nuclear plans.

Finally, the WP looks at the latest blight on Washington, D.C.: unsightly spots of chewing gum spit on sidewalks throughout the city. The epidemic has prompted complaints from residents and business owners, who complain the wads of gums sticking to the ground make the city look like a “third world country.” Local officials don’t have the money or the patience to deal with the problem, and it’s become a major frustration. “People shouldn’t spit gum on sidewalks,” says one D.C. official. “I wish people would just keep it in their damn mouths.”