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Takedown: How the media almost blew Obama's secret trip to Afghanistan

By Halimah Abdullah, Special to CNN
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Wed May 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Early reports had Obama on the ground in Afghanistan before he actually was
  • Reporters were involved in the effort to keep the trip secret
  • Concerns about safety fueled White House efforts to squash early rumors on web, Twitter

Washington (CNN) -- Hours before the official announcement that President Barack Obama had landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, for a surprise visit, the media -- both social and electronic -- were already buzzing with reports about the trip.

Had he indeed landed in-country? Was it just a rumor? Should it be reported anyway?

Some, including those inside the administration, were actively concerned about the safety of the commander in chief as he arrived in a war zone, while others felt any word of the president's visit was public information and fair game in today's competitive, instant news cycle.

Before the day began, the administration issued what was later revealed to be a fake presidential schedule, having the president and vice president in meetings throughout the day at the White House.

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Early Tuesday morning, an Afghan official told CNN that the palace staff in Kabul was instructed to go home at noon local time, 3:30 a.m. ET, sparking rumors of a VIP visit to the city.

Then, shortly after 9 a.m. ET, Afghanistan-based 24-hour news channel TOLONEWS filed a Twitter post announcing the president's supposed arrival in Afghanistan. (The tweet has since been deleted from its feed.)

@TOLOnews "BREAKING: United States President Barack Obama has arrived in Kabul to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai."

Minutes later, The Huffington Post's Joshua Hersh retweeted @TOLOnews with a question:

@joshuahersh "Is this right?RT @TOLOnews BREAKING: United States President Barack Obama has arrived in Kabul to meet Afghan president Hamid Karzai"

But, at 9:32 a.m, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced via Twitter:

@USEmbassyKabul "Reports that President Obama is in Kabul are false."

 
 

That was enough to send the Twitterverse and traditional media buzzing. The New York Post posted a story on its website shortly after 10 a.m. reporting the president was in Afghanistan.

"Obama arrives in Afghanistan report says; White House denies it," read the Post's headline. The story was later removed from the paper's website.

"Where is Obama," read a similar headline on The Drudge Report. Many of the publications that posted early reports on the president's visit later pulled their stories. However, The Drudge Report kept its post up.

Early reports often wrong

At the time, all those reports were wrong, or at least premature, according to the administration. The White House later reported Air Force One actually landed in Afghanistan at 2 p.m. ET

Yes, the president had indeed secretly traveled to Afghanistan, a trip loaded with symbolism on the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing. But virtually all of the major media organizations that were in a position to have known about the trip did not report it until it was officially announced around 3 p.m. ET.

The trip took place in the wake of security questions raised last month following a scandal that erupted when several members of a Secret Service advance team in Cartagena, Colombia, solicited prostitutes before the president's arrival at the Summit of the Americas. And in March, several news outlets, at the White House's request, removed stories about daughter Malia Obama's spring break trip to Mexico.

But balancing news interests against security interests is nothing new for White House reporters.

CNN's John King, host of "John King,USA," said he faced a similar challenge during a trip to Iraq with then-President George W. Bush as he visited newly minted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"We were told we were not supposed to tell our family," King told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday. "We were supposed to tell one or two of our colleagues, meaning our bosses, and to keep it as secret as possible."

A secret rendezvous in the dark of night

News organizations who were a part of the traveling press pool covering the president's surprise Afghanistan visit -- a small group of reporters, producers and photojournalists designated to be the eyes and ears of the White House press corps during such clandestine trips -- were part of the secrecy and complied with the White House's request to hold off on reporting the information until the president was safely in Kabul, according to White House pool reports.

Hours earlier, reporters had secretly gathered at a remote parking area at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, had all their electronic gear confiscated -- cell phones, laptops, cameras, "anything that might have tracking software" -- and were driven by bus to a darkened Air Force One waiting in the shadows on the tarmac.

After an 11-hour flight, the media -- and the president -- found themselves in a steep descent into Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, the official modified Boeing 747 still shrouded in darkness. On trips such as these, it is safest for the president to land and takeoff under cover of night.

"We landed at Bagram Airfield at 1020p local and got onto Chinook helicopters that were waiting with rotors spinning," reported pool producer Richard Coolidge of ABC News. "The short flight to Kabul was also in blackout -- no use of any flashlights or even phones due to their backlit screens. Pilots and gunners used night vision goggles."

Within hours, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement, setting the framework for a U.S. military presence in the war-torn nation for the next decade. Then, Obama addressed cheering troops at Bagram, spoke to the nation in a live remote address and was wheels-up, safely clearing Afghan airspace.

"AF1 is blacked out as it was on arrival with shades down. But the increasing light limits the value of that precaution," reported the press pool. "We are on AF1 and rolling 425a local 755 pm ET."

Total time on the ground was six hours and five minutes.

White House plugging holes

The early reports of the president's Afghanistan trip sent White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor scurrying to douse the rumors. According to the website BuzzFeed, that outlet agreed to the White House request and pulled its report after Vietor called around 9:33 a.m. The New York Post followed suit, removing its story hours later.

Vietor did not respond to CNN's request for comment.

"It wasn't that hard a call," BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith told CNN. "There's an appropriate tradition of deferring to White House and military requests to delay -- not spike -- a story when they believe people in a war zone could be in danger."

"And a plane in the air above Afghanistan, the situation, as we later learned, is a pretty clear case of that," Smith added. "Vietor's narrow denial also telegraphed the situation to media watchers paying close attention."

But media experts acknowledge the press has to walk a fine line between the need to get the news out and the safety of the president.

Journalists must often ask themselves the question "what does the public need to know and when do they need to know it," said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a media training organization in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Tompkins said that in the harried and hypercompetitive world of reporting via social media, outlets sometimes reason that a competitor's scoop signals a green light to rush ahead with news. This is a dangerous precedent when national security is concerned, he said.

"No, you can't unring the bell, but you can stop ringing it," Tompkins said.

Halimah Abdullah is a freelance writer based in Washington. CNN's Tim McCaughan, Nick Paton Walsh and Bryan Monroe contributed to this report

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