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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 http://rasmusen.org/t/2009/flyover.txt.

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

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?

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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  1. Anonymous
    May 16th, 2009 at 16:57 | #1

    How much d’ya wanna bet that my last post is deleted by “a blog administrator” as well?

  2. Anonymous
    May 16th, 2009 at 16:50 | #2

    And the May 10 entry was deleted why? Because it was critical, and embarrased the blogger, is why. The comment essentially mentioned the fact that question #3 asks why were F16’s with AF1? The answer was, because the 2 seat version (which is what went along) of the F-16 allows for a combat photographer to fly along and take the pictures! The blogger is a right wing moron…nothing more, nothing less! Okay, he’s dickless, too!

  3. Anonymous
    May 13th, 2009 at 17:42 | #3

    The intent of this fly over was apparently to update their photo catalog. Hello????? Can anyone say Photoshop???? I don’t but their explanation for one minute. In today’s digital age one could add a airforce1 photo to any background and the common joe would have no clue it was digitally enhanced.

  4. crude
    May 11th, 2009 at 04:17 | #4

    Why is the FAA not at fault here too?

    I can understand the need to secure some of the information. The public would have no need to know the callsign, route and other such specifics of the operation.

    But at the very least why not issue a public statement (and well in advance) that one of the aircraft used for Air Force 1 would be flying low level with an F16 over lower New York and in the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty so as to NOT cause a panic?

    The FAA is at fault just as much if not more for this complete lack of foresight. Who will be fired or resign from the agency for this? Quick answer … no one.

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