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Background: Bush's Surprise Visits To Iraq, Afghanistan

Former President George W. Bush made four unannounced trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan during his presidency:

  • Nov. 27 2003: Iraq -- Unannounced Thanksgiving Day visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad. He was on the ground for 2½ hours.
  • March 1, 2006: Makes unannounced stop in Afghanistan on a trip to India and Pakistan
  • June 13 2006: Makes surprise visit to Baghdad for talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
  • Sept 3, 2007: Stops in Iraq on a trip to Australia for the APEC Summit.
  • Dec. 14-15 2008: Makes final visit as president to Iraq, visiting Baghdad and Camp Victory. He then went to Afghanistan, visiting Kabul and Bagram Air Base.

Each trip was carried out under extraordinary security. On the first visit, reporters were not permitted to file reports until Mr. Bush had completed the visit and was wheels up from Iraq. White House officials had said that if any advance word had leaked out, the trip would have been cancelled, even if Air Force One was half way there.

By the last visit, which I covered, reporters were permitted to report Mr. Bush's arrival as soon as he landed.

Reporters accompanying the president on such trips are sworn to secrecy until White House officials give the green light that it's okay to report the visit.

Here's what Air Force One pilot Col. Mark Tillman told me in an interview about that first presidential trip to Iraq:

TILLMAN: "The President wanted us to take him to the combat zone so he could speak with the troops – have thanksgiving dinner with the troops. Originally, there was just a handfull of us that knew about it – so myself and my navigator planned the entire mission and then we slowly at the end – the day prior – let everybody know on our crew exactly where we were going to go and then even the flight attendants until the day of – didn't know where they were going, so. the goal was to make sure it was in complete secrecy - that there was no chance that anyone could let out the mission. and its to keep the president safe but on the other hand everyone has to realize that – if everyone knew that he was coming towards the combat zone – the troops over there would not be safe. 'cause i mean everybody would try to get at the president. and that was his big desire. his marching orders were to make sure this stays secret so that we dont endanger any of the lives of the americans over there."

QUESTION: How do you sneak Air Force One - the most widely recognized aircraft in the world – into a warzone?

TILLMAN: "We took an awful lot of work to make that happen. We had the plane going over areas – so when the plane would be visible to other aircraft – it would be in countries where they dont see Air Force One all the time so it wouldnt be a big deal. So we went over the United States at darkness, we came over the North Atlantic, where a lot of planes are transiting back and forth – american aircraft at darkness – so they couldn't see us. And when we went over countries that would not recognize the aircraft – we hit those during the daylight."

More CBS News Coverage Of President Obama's Surprise Visit To Iraq

Robert Hendin Reports On The Press Left Behind In Istanbul During Obama's Current Visit In Iraq

Map: Full Coverage Of Obama's First Overseas Trip

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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