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Tuesday, June 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Stealth handover stymies journalists

By Howard Kurtz
The Washington Post

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The phone calls to the journalists were cryptic. Their cellphones were confiscated. And at the moment they realized they were watching an abruptly scheduled transfer of power from U.S. authorities to the new Iraqi government yesterday, most of the United States was asleep.

Only two big-name television stars, ABC anchor Peter Jennings and CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, witnessed the brief ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq.

Moments before they were ushered into the nondescript room, Jennings said yesterday from Baghdad, "a couple of us looked at each other in a highly speculative way and said maybe it had something to do with sovereignty."

CBS' Dan Rather, who was reporting elsewhere in Iraq, said his team had heard from a U.S. source that " 'we can't tell you what it's going to be, but it's going to be something big.' We did not think there was a high probability it would be the handover."

MSNBC broke the news based on a staff member's diplomatic source at 11:23 p.m. PDT, followed by Fox News at 11:30 (reporter Kelly Wright said the handover "could be taking place sometime today") and CNN at 11:33 (European editor Robin Oakley attributed it to British diplomatic sources).

Rather got on the air at 11:43, and Jennings, borrowing a colleague's cellphone because his had not been returned, provided a firsthand account at 11:52.

"It was spontaneous, to say the least," Jennings said. "There was no sense of grandeur, no sense that it was something historic, until we got out of the room."

NBC chose not to break into programming given that its cable network was on the story, so anchor Tom Brokaw did his first report from Baghdad for "Today."

Unlike President Bush's surprise Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad last year, when some reporters were asked to keep the secret so they could travel along, the media was not clued in on what amounted to a covert operation.

The networks spent considerable time and money flying in high-priced talent to cover the handover, which had been scheduled for tomorrow. But when it was decided that an earlier handover might minimize the chances of violence aimed at overshadowing the ceremony, the cloak-and-dagger stuff began.

When about 30 journalists and photographers, including a Washington Post correspondent, arrived, they were not told anything about a transfer of sovereignty.
 
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Authorities took the reporters' cellphones and placed them in brown envelopes to prevent them from calling their news organizations. The journalists were then told the handover ceremony was about to unfold, but the news was embargoed for two hours.

By this time, the BBC was reporting the change in plans, and some U.S. TV correspondents were livid that they had no way of communicating with the outside world. After the five-minute ceremony and five minutes of questions from the media, the embargo was widely ignored because the news was out.

"In our business, seconds count," Rather said. He said he didn't mind missing the ceremony but would have been disappointed "if I had been locked in that room and found out someone else had broken the story."

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said from Baghdad that he was not that surprised. "We'd been getting word that June 30 was just a date, more of a deadline," he said. U.S. officials "had been very reluctant about the details. There was definitely a sense that it wasn't necessarily a June 30 event."

Jennings said he had heard rumors while reporting in Lebanon and Jordan over the weekend that something might be up, but "we thought it had to do with Saddam Hussein and the transfer of legal authority from the U.S. to the Iraqis."

The degree to which the handover was orchestrated in secret became clear after the ceremony, Jennings said, when "not only was [U.S. governor L. Paul] Bremer getting on a helicopter to disappear forever, but so was Dan Senor, the spokesman."

John Stack, Fox's vice president for news gathering, said he was not perturbed at the way the ceremony was staged.

"All these very smart and shrewd people were taken by surprise," he said of his colleagues. The fact that U.S. officials "were able to get something accomplished that was a planned event ... without any violence, it's a good thing."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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