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Baghdad thanksgiving with selected soldiers { December 12 2003 }

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   http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57870-2003Dec11.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57870-2003Dec11.html

A Baghdad Thanksgiving's Lingering Aftertaste

By Dana Milbank
Friday, December 12, 2003; Page A35

Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon-authorized newspaper of the U.S. military, is bucking for a court-martial.

When last we checked in on Stripes, it was reporting on a survey it did of troops in Iraq, finding that half of those questioned described their units' moral as low and their training as insufficient and said they did not plan to reenlist.

With the Pentagon just recovering from that, Stars and Stripes is blowing the whistle on President Bush's Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad, saying the cheering soldiers who met him were pre-screened and others showing up for a turkey dinner were turned away.

The newspaper, quoting two officials with the Army's 1st Armored Division in an article last week, reported that "for security reasons, only those preselected got into the facility during Bush's visit. . . . The soldiers who dined while the president visited were selected by their chain of command, and were notified a short time before the visit."

The paper also published a letter to the editor from Sgt. Loren Russell, who wrote of the heroism of his soldiers and then added: "[I]magine their dismay when they walked 15 minutes to the Bob Hope Dining Facility, only to find that they were turned away from their evening meal because they were in the wrong unit. . . . They understand that President Bush ate there and that upgraded security was required. But why were only certain units turned away?"

Russell added that his soldiers "chose to complain amongst themselves and eat MREs, even after the chow hall was reopened for 'usual business' at 9 p.m. As a leader myself, I'd guess that other measures could have been taken to allow for proper security and still let the soldiers have their meal."

The 1st Armored Division officials told Stars and Stripes that all soldiers had the opportunity to get a proper Thanksgiving meal -- possibly more than the newspaper's editors will get in Guantanamo next year.

It's been two weeks since Bush made that secret trip to Iraq, but the flight itself continues to cause turbulence.

The controversy began when the White House said Air Force One was spotted by a British Airways plane but the president's pilots told the dubious British Airways pilots by radio that they were flying a Gulfstream V. The White House later said there was no British Airways plane involved and the conversation took place between British air traffic control and another plane while Air Force One was "off the western coast of England."

As it happens, Air Force One was flying across the North Sea, off the eastern coast of England, when it was spotted by the mystery plane, a German charter jet. But that's being picky.

Of more concern, air traffic controllers in Britain are seething over the flight, in which the president's 747, falsely identified as a Gulfstream, traveled through British airspace. Prospect, the controllers union in the United Kingdom, says the flight broke international regulations, posed a potential safety threat and exposed a weakness in the air defense system that could be exploited by terrorists.

"The overriding concern is if the president's men who did this can dupe air traffic control, what's to stop a highly organized terrorist group from duping air traffic control?" asked David Luxton, Prospect's national secretary. Luxton said the flight was in "breach" of regulations against filing false flight plans set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which he said should apply to a military aircraft using civilian airspace.

Luxton said that by identifying itself as a Gulfstream V instead of the much larger 747, Air Force One could have put itself and other airplanes in danger. The Gulfstream can climb faster and maneuver more nimbly than a 747, which means controllers could have assumed the president's plane was capable of a collision-avoiding maneuver that it couldn't actually do. And the "wake vortex" of a 747, much larger than a Gulfstream's, could jeopardize smaller planes that were told by unsuspecting controllers to follow in the mislabeled plane's wake.

As it happens, Air Force One passed without incident. But Luxton said that's beside the point. "It's important air traffic control have an accurate picture of what's up there in the sky they're controlling," he said.

The White House has declined to elaborate further on the flight plan and other security measures for the trip.


2003 The Washington Post Company



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