Secret Iraq Trip Rankles Statehouse Press Corps
By Erin Madigan, Staff Writer
It's 5 a.m. Do you know where your governor is?
State capitol reporters in six states didn't have a clue until just before daybreak Tuesday that their governors were halfway around the world on a secret mission.
In a sequel to President Bush's surprise visit to troops in Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day, six of the nation's governors sneaked away over the weekend to embark on a top-secret, two-day tour of Iraq.
Invited by the White House and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the governors were told each could bring one member of their local press along. But if word of the high-security trip leaked to the public, it would be canceled, they were warned.
Two Democrats, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, were joined on the trip by four Republicans, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and New York Gov. George Pataki.
Kempthorne was chosen because he chairs the National Governors Association. Pataki told reporters he was selected, in part, because his state suffered the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The rest of the group was picked to achieve geographic diversity and bipartisanship, a Defense Department official told Stateline.org.
Governors, their spouses and a select staffer or two were the only ones let in on the hush-hush operation. In Washington, D.C., there were rumors that a group of governors might be headed to Iraq. One clue: Kulongoski, a former Marine whose state has the highest number of troops deployed per capita, was spotted dining out Saturday night in the nation's capital. Reporters later learned the governors were in D.C. over the weekend for a Pentagon briefing before flying to Amman, Jordan, late Sunday night.
News of the elusive and exclusive trip was made public only after the governors landed in Baghdad. They arrived an hour after a truck bomb killed more than 50 Iraqis just 20 miles south of the city.
Security was tight throughout the trip. Speaking over a crackly phone line to an eager gaggle of reporters who were left behind in Louisiana and to Stateline.org, Blanco described in a conference call how Apache gunship helicopters hovered above the governors' convoy as it drove into the city. Soldiers pointed M-16s out the windows of the convoy, reports from the group said.
"The convoy stopped at (one point) because there was an unidentified box in the road," Blanco said. "That box had to be investigated before we could move on for fear that it might have been a bomb."
The governors flew back to Jordan after spending the first day in Iraq. They did not spend the night in Baghdad for security reasons, Blanco said.
Other governors also made time for phone calls to other media outlets in their state.
The Oregonian's Bryan Denson, the Portland newspaper reporter along on the trip, reported security was so tight even the crew of the C-130H Hercules plane that ferried the governors into Baghdad didn't know who was on board. "They told us we had one governor from Delaware," a crew member told Denson. "What we got was no governor from Delaware."
Back at home, the news caught statehouse reporters off guard and left them reeling. Stunned journalists learned of the trip in early-morning press releases, hallway discussions and frenzied phone calls from editors. As the day wore on, frustrations were flying in heated emails among capitol reporters who were frantically trying to sort out what had happened.
"Yesterday morning I come in, not knowing the governor is in Iraq, see that news as I look up at the CNN screen and see there's been an enormous explosion in Baghdad," said Kate Parry, senior politics editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I don't know whether my governor is in the middle of that. So we spent a pretty frantic few minutes trying to make sure we didn't have the death of a governor on our hands."
Betsy Russell, the Boise, Idaho, bureau chief for The Spokesman-Review based in Spokane, Washington, said she was unsettled to learn she'd been kept in the dark. "As a journalist, I just plain don't like that," she said. When she first heard the news Tuesday morning from a state bureaucrat, she thought it was a joke. "I thought he was putting me on. Then I saw the press release."
The governors were charged with selecting which news organization would be invited, and each approached it in a different way.
Idaho's Kempthorne asked Carolyn Washburn, executive editor of The Idaho Statesman, the largest newspaper in the state, for a confidential meeting late last week.
Washburn, who published an editor's note in her newspaper explaining why she helped keep the trip secret, told Stateline.org that she thought the governor's request was "fairly unusual."
"I know him well enough to know that he seemed to be putting his neck out to even ask me such a thing, and it was clear to me that something significant was happening," Washburn said.
Washburn disclosed the conversation only to her publisher and to statehouse reporter Greg Hahn, who would be making the trip. Hahn, who's engaged to be married in a few months, was allowed to tell his fianc only that he was on assignment to a dangerous place but not specifically where, the timetable or the itinerary until he was there.
Reporters' news organizations paid their own expenses. Washburn said Hahn did not wear a bullet-proof vest, but The Oregonian reported the "group had been hustled into body armor" when they landed in Baghdad.
Only a few people in the newsroom have questioned whether secrecy was the best option, Washburn said, but most of her staff supports the newspaper agreeing to the trip.
Washburn said she'd be "seriously bummed out" if another media outlet had been chosen. "If somebody else were chosen, I'd probably be asking the governor's office to help me understand why, but I wouldn't think that was (the reporter's) fault."
In Minnesota, Pawlenty and his chief of staff decided they wanted a broadcast outlet along on the trip and drew the Twin Cities' ABC affiliate at random out of a hat.
That, though, rankled the print media. "The issue is not really about security, it's about manipulating the coverage. To not consider print reporters and only to consider TV and TV images feels wrong," the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Parry said.
The Minnesota governor's office put out a media advisory Monday saying, "No public events scheduled at this time" for the following day, hoodwinking reporters into thinking Tuesday was business as usual. "Everyone was surprised about the trip, so we've just been walking through why we had to keep everything secret based on security issues, how we went about everything," explained Leslie Kupchella, Pawlenty's press secretary.
A more blatant deception took place in Hawaii. According to the Associated Press, the governor's press secretary, Russell Pang, was asked Monday by a reporter why the governor had no public events scheduled for four days straight. "She's around here, working on several things," Pang answered. Lingle did not bring a reporter along on the trip.
This is the first time any governors have traveled to Iraq since the war. Kempthorne spokesman Mark Snider said the visit was important because governors are commanders in chief of their respective state's National Guard units, which play a vital role in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the war on terror.
A Defense Department official said the trip was not motivated by election-year politics. However, four of the six states the governors hailed from went for Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race (Hawaii, Minnesota, Oregon and New York).
"Everything that happens this year is in some way informed by the fact that there's an election coming ... so I can't help but assume that there's an edge of that here," Parry said.
The governors were scheduled to meet with members of the National Guard, and they did not go to Iraq empty-handed. Pataki brought memorial coins and flags that had flown over the statehouse in Albany, and Blanco carried hundred of letters for the troops from Louisiana schoolchildren.
The governors' itinerary also included meetings with their counterparts in the Iraqi government and high-ranking U.S. officials such as Ambassador Paul Bremer plus visits to Saddam Hussein's primary palace, a dairy plant, a university and a women's center.
The governors are expected back in the United States late Thursday and are to meet with President Bush at the White House Friday.