The journey started with a brief e-mail: "U reachable?" asked the senior Bush aide in June. He invited me to meet at a local diner. "We're going to Baghdad," he said, sipping a Diet Coke. "Want to come?" There was just one condition, he explained. "You can't tell anyone. Not even your wife."
My wife guessed immediately. A day later I took a taxi to a Virginia hotel--not the usual rendezvous at Andrews Air Force Base, where someone might see the press arrive. Another White House aide told us to surrender our cell phones, pagers and BlackBerrys.
At dusk our plain white vans backed up to the stairs of Air Force One, parked close to its hangar, out of sight of the terminal. An hour later, under cover of darkness, the president bounded up the stairs. "POTUS is onboard!" he declared, referring to himself by his own acronym: president of the United States. The trip seemed unreal until they started handing out flak jackets and helmets. The White House believed that our secret was still safe, but the most dangerous part lay ahead: a 10-minute helicopter flight over downtown Baghdad.
Air Force One dropped out of the sky and into the 100-degree heat of Baghdad airport. We ran to two military helicopters and were soon swooping across the Tigris to land in the Green Zone. President Bush had flown into Baghdad and walked into Saddam's old palace without anybody's knowing. Except our wives.