Wings over Liberty

The White House released a copy of a memorandum summarizing the review of the April 27, 2009 VC-25 flight over New York City. The memorandum seems to suggest that the controversial flight was planned at the level of the Deputy Director of the White House Military Office down onto the Presidential Airlift Group. The memorandum appears to hint that Director Caldera was not fully functional at the time he received a crucial email informing him the flight, being under medication for a back spasm, and for seem reason didn't carry out a suggestion to mention the flight with Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. On April 24, according to the memorandum, Caldera received this email from his deputy, George Mulligan.

Sir: per our conversation about Scott Turner's plan to fly over the Statue of Liberty -- it's scheduled for this Monday, April 27th. All has been coordinated. AF PA plan/statement is below and will be released only if asked. Will probably receive some local press, but WH shouldn't catch any questions about it. Provided in case you want to pass to Jim Messina or Robert Gibbs for awareness. This is an AF operation, in close coordination with FAA. Happy to discuss with out as necessary. v/r, gm [George Mulligan -- Wretchard]

The memorandum, taken at face value, appears to establish the existence of a 'wall of ignorance' between those who planned the operation and the core White House political staff. It will be argued that the "true facts" are just as set forth in the memorandum because it is the most consistent explanation with the known facts. After all, if the VC-25 flight was a junket, wouldn't there be some involvement by Messina and Gibbs in the planning for the flight and Gibbs appeared not to know about it when asked. If the flight were part of footage for a "Tuskegee Airman" movie, then one would have expected a premier aerial cinematograhic platform, capable of following high performance F-16s and jet commercial aircraft in the vicinity.

But the memorandum doesn't totally dispel all the mysteries because it is confined by its own admission to examining events after they bubbled up to the WHMO; the DOD is conducting its separate own investigation. And it doesn't address the central question of why anyone should mount surprise low-level flyby of NYC involving extensive interagency coordination when public notification was apparently envisioned. Page 2 of the memorandum notes that "coordination with the general public was to commence two days before the flight" and that while coordination should not mention "Presidential aircraft", it was in fact suggested that reference be made to "DOD aircraft". In other words there did not appear to be a prohibition against telling the public that the US Air Force would be conducting some mission over Manhattan and that nobody should be alarmed.

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 inlcuding the date, time and location of the operation; the altitude of the plan (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." Coordination with "the general public" was 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".

So was it simply a matter of people thinking the "outreach" had been done when it had not; a case of Mulligan thinking that Caldera had taken care of the political and PR end when he had not? And what of the photos? The memorandum says that nobody in the WHMO knew that a PR disaster had occurred until 10:30 am that day, when calls began flooding into the White House. So the photographic shoot mission should have unaffected and the photos should have been taken as per plan.