Saturday, May 9, 2009


Scare Force One (2009)

Note: I will be updating this blog post now and then, without noting what is new. The White House internal report on the New York City flyover was released late Friday afternoon, presumably so as to attract minimal media attention, and Louis Caldera, the head of the White House Military Office resigned. This looks like a cover-up to me.

The general impression one gets from the report is that the military is entirely to blame, and there is in fact no reason for Mr. Caldera to resign. He knew little about it, and assumed that the flight was routine, the public was prepared, F16's weren't involved, the flight wasn't low-altitude, and so forth. A large number of details are given, and the tone is severe, but the important questions are left unanswered.

In particular, the big questions are:

1. Whose idea was the mission? In particular, was it Mr. Caldera's? Mr. Obama's? The report says a lot about people not knowing the details of the mission, but knowing the date, etc. is different from knowing the general idea.

2. Who was on the airplane? Were campaign contributors on it? (Update: No, apparently. See the Gates letter to Senator McCain. "There were no non-duty personnel or passengers on board."

3. Why were F16's accompanying Air Force One?

4. Was everyone told to keep this a secret from the public? (Yes-- See the FAA instructions at The Potomac Current air traffic control blog. Note how it excludes mention of the White House, and that it says there is to be no publicity or warnings.) If so, why?

5. Did anybody in the military object to the mission?

6. Where do training missions commonly travel?

7. What was the purpose of the photo shoot? What was to be done with these particular photos?

8. Why is Director Caldera resigning if his role is as minimal and excusable as the Report implies?

Here are excerpts from the May 5 report by the White House Counsel, with my comments. I've posted a plain text version of the report at

Our review was limited to the White House's involvement in the April 27 flyover. We collected relevant documents from senior White House staff and from the leadership of the White House Military Office ("WHMO"). We interviewed the WHMO Director, Louis Caldera (the "Director"), and the WHMO Deputy Director, George Mulligan (the "Deputy Director"). We did not review the conduct of other federal agencies or departments that participated in the flyover, including the Department of Defense (the "DoD") or the Federal Aviation Administration (the "FAA"). DoD is conducting its own internal reviews into the April 27 flyover.

Not interviewing any of the people actually on the flight, or lower-level employees of WHMO is purposeful ignorance. Even if the purpose is just to review the top WHMO people--*especially* if it is-- you should ask other people what really happened. Especially if you're going to imply the military is to blame, as this report does.

WHMO is comprised of a headquarters staff and seven operational units that employ approximately 2,300 individuals. Most WHMO employees are military personnel who serve in the operational units, and each unit is led by a military commander. The Presidential Airlift Group ("P AG) is one of the seven operational units.

2,300 employees! Just for the executive branch! If they cost $50,000 dollars each, that comes to about $100 million dollars in defense spending just for the White House and whoever else gets ferried around. That's ridiculous.

The April 27 Flight Initial planning for the New York City flyover appears to have begun in March 2009 or earlier.

On Friday, April 3, 2009, representatives of the PAG, the FAA, and several local authorities held a teleconference to discuss "operational issues and public affairs / outreach issues."

Whoa! The report has just skipped over the question of whose idea this flyover was, and who ordered the PAG (the air force people) to do it. In other words, the report is going to skip the big decision and go straight to the petty details.

On Friday, April 3, 2009, representatives of the PAG, the FAA, and several local authorities held a teleconference to discuss "operational issues and public affairs / outreach issues." According to a written summary of the call, the participants discussed the details of the proposed flyover including the date, time, and location of the operation; the altitude of the plane (1,000 feet), and the preferred flight path. The participants recognized "the sensitivity of the aircraft involved," and concluded that "public affairs and outreach efforts must be carefully coordinated and timed."
So this meeting was for details such as the exact date and the flight path. Somebody else had already ordered that there be a photoshoot near the Statue of Liberty. Who?

Coordination with "the general public" was planned to commence two days before the flight. The written summary of the call further specified that "[n]o reference should be made to the Presidential aircraft in any public outreach." However, it suggested that public outreach could reference "DOD aircraft."
Was it decided that the public wouldn't be notified? Notice here that complete secrecy before the mission is not inconsistent with what the report says. "Public outreach" is very general, and might just mean the script for answering questions after the mission.

Note, too, that they decided to lie about the White House's role. Well, literally, Air Force One is Air Force, not White House, and a mission ordered by the White House against the advice of Air Force officials is still an Air Force mission, but I think "lie" is not too strong a word nonetheless.

Neither the Director nor the Deputy Director participated in or were aware of the April 3 teleconference.
Why should they be? They don't care about the exact date and they don't know anything about designing flight paths. The policy decisions had already been made; the April 3 meeting was about operational details.

On Thursday, April 9, the commander of the PAG, Colonel Scott Turner, sent an email to the Deputy Director addressing a number of issues, including a plan to conduct "a photo shoot over the Statute of Liberty on the 27th of this month." During the same time period- either shortly before or after the April 9 email-the Deputy Director spoke to Colonel Turner about the proposed flight. The Deputy Director advised Colonel Turner to determine whether it was feasible or not; if Colonel Turner encountered any problems or objections, the flyover would not go forward. According to the Deputy Director, Colonel Turner likely contacted him because the mission was unusual. If it had been a typical or routine training mission, the Air Force would not have notified the White House.
This makes it sound like it was Colonel Turner's idea. If it was, he should be severely punished, perhaps even court-martialed. That might be the case. But notice that this paragraph does not say that the Deputy Director hadn't heard of the idea before April 9, and it doesn't even exclude the possibility that he ordered it to take place. It does imply that the Deputy Director hadn't heard anything earlier and that he had no idea it was to be kept secret in advance, but it doesn't come out and say that. And this report is being written by smart lawyers, remember.

On Monday, April 20, the Deputy Director believes that he notified the Director for the first time about the proposed flyover. According to the Deputy Director, he briefly described the plan and stated that Colonel Turner was working on the details. He also suggested that when the plan was finalized, the Director may want to inform White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina. The Deputy Director believed that Mr. Messina would want notice because the plan involved the use of the Presidential aircraft and because it was unusual-i. e., it was a photo shoot near New York City and it required a high degree of coordination.
Again: this is the first time the Deputy Director talked about the flyover with the Director, but that's different from saying that the Director hadn't heard of it before. It could be that the Director ordered it done, and the Deputy Director was now filling him in on details such as the date.

On Thursday evening, April 23, Colonel Turner sent an email to the Deputy Director describing the final details of the flight. It stated that for security reasons, details about the flight would be treated as "FOUO" ("for official use only"). Federal, state, and local authorities would be notified on April 24, and coordination with the "general public" would begin "on or after 26 Apr."

What security reasons could there be? Was he afraid terrorists would come with missiles to shoot down an Air Force One with no passengers?

Colonel Turner responded that everything was ready to go and no objections or concerns had been raised.
This is important. The Report itself says concerns were raised at the April 3 meeting. So does this just mean that there were no new objections or concerns? Or maybe no objections in the previous day?

At 12: 11 PM on April 24, Colonel Turner sent another email to the Deputy Director stating that final preparations for the flight were moving forward. He stated that he had "sent a suggested response to any media queries" to public affairs. And he asked, "[ d]o you have any issues/reservations whatsoever?"
It sounds as if Colonel Turner was trying to protect himself here. Maybe he was aware of what a stupid idea this flight was.

Finally, the Director stated that he was not asked to approve the flight. If he had been asked to make a decision, he would have received a formal package requesting his approval and he would have expected earlier and more extensive discussions with Colonel Turner and the Deputy Director.
Well, yes, there was no reason for a formal decision procedure, if the policy decision had already been made in March-- especially if the Director himself (or the President) made the decision then.
We also asked the Deputy Director why he did not notify Messrs. Messina or Gibbs. He did not do so for two reasons. First, he believed-based on his discussions with Colonel Turner and the various emails he received-that experienced professionals had planned the mission, and they had taken necessary steps to ensure the public was notified.

Here the DD is blaming the air force for the fiasco. Maybe he's right, but maybe he's not. We're not given enough info.

On Saturday, April 25, Colonel Turner sent a detailed email that described the planned flyover to General Arthur Lichte, commander of the Air Force Air Mobility Command. The email stated: "Secretary Caldera and George Mulligan have both 'blessed' this event. They were to brief Jim Messina and Robert Gibbs for their awareness only. I wanted to make sure you were fully in the information loop." The email further stated that Colonel Turner had "sent a press release" to Air Force public affairs personnel "in the event there are any media queries" and that the "FAA Public Affairs office in New York is poised to answer any/all questions that arise from the New York IN ew Jersey area."
This does sound as if Col. Turner was to blame. It is the strongest evidence that the whole thing was his idea. But why would a colonel propose a photo shoot? And wouldn't Air Force people be sensitive to the idea that flying in cities is unusual, dangerous, and liable to scare people anywhere, even if they didn't remember 9-11?
According to the Director, this was the first time he learned that the flight reminded people of 9111 and there was a jet fighter trailing the 747 aircraft.

That's a strange sentence. It raises the question again of why fighters were there. Were they taking the pictures? Why not use a slow-flying, cheap, aircraft?

The Director stated that he had no idea that the plan called for the aircraft to fly at 1,000 feet; he feels terrible that the flight had caused harm; and he believes that the White House needed to apologize.

Just how is the airplane supposed to get close to the Statue of Liberty if it's flying at 20,000 feet?

We believe that WHMO's general structure-and specifically, the reporting relationship of WHMO's operational units (such as the PAG) to the White House and to the Military Service Branches-should be examined. We recommend a comprehensive study resulting in recommendations to the President regarding these structural issues.

Ah, yes-- a "structural issue" is at fault, rather than any individual person. Stupid. The problem is not that the White House doesn't get notified of every flight Air Force One makes. If it were, nobody would read such boring reports anyway. The problem is that somebody-- we should learn who--- ordered this particular flight.

Update: There is actually a plausible theory under which the White House can be exonerated: the Air Force Setup Theory. Usually the WHMO is a military officer. Usually the WHMO is somebody more respectable than Mr. Caldera. No doubt the military saw his appointment as a slap in the face. This could explain why experienced professionals would come up with the stupid idea of the flyover. They could propose it, start the planning, make sure it was done as incompetently as possible, and then get the blessing of the WHMO without informing him of the security details or the likely consequences. Then, they could anonymously plant rumors in the blogosphere that the plane was full of campaign contributors. This would provide the mood for the WHMO to be blamed. A full investigation might turn up the real culprits, but they might bet on an Administration desire to nip the scandal in the bud--- along with Administration uncertainty over whether an investigation might indeed show that an Obama appointee was culpable.



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