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Demetri Sevastopulo, Pentagon correspondent, gives the inside track on the road with Donald Rumsfeld, as the US defence secretary meets Nato defence ministers and embarks on a three-nation tour designed to show US support for moderate North Africa countries amid worries about Islamic extremism.

He arrived in Algeria on Sunday from Tunisia and flew to Morocco afterwards. The United States regards the three countries as moderate forces in the region and important allies.

Day One – Wheels up at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland

 Twelve Pentagon reporters are travelling with Rumsfeld on the E4-B – a Boeing 747 that has been converted into a kind of “Pentagon in the Sky” that could be used as a war nerve centre in the case of a nuclear war or other catastrophic attack on the US.

We are supposed to be “wheels-up” at Andrews Air Force Base – the home of Air Force One which transports President George W. Bush around the US and world - at about 6.30pm on Wednesday evening. Inconveniently, however, King Abdullah of Jordan, who is departing after meeting President George W. Bush - seems to take precedence over Rumsfeld, so we are kept waiting on the tarmac for almost an hour.

Before take-off Rumsfeld wanders back from his more luxurious cabin at the front of the plane to banter with the journalists.

One of the ground rules of our being on the plane, however, is that all conversations are “off-the-record” unless otherwise specified. He then wanders back to the classified area – meaning we cannot enter - behind us where his aides will work and sleep during the flight.

Our cramped quarters have no windows because the plane has a special coating to defend against certain kinds of attacks. The seats are slightly more comfortable than economy class on most transatlantic flights, but a far cry from business class. The Pentagon officials have slightly more comfortable seating arrangements, but they do not appear that much more comfortable from our vantage point, although they have more space to walk around.

A little over an hour into the flight we start our in-air refuelling. The heavy communications equipment on our older plane results in lower fuel efficiency. Sitting in the back of the plane is like riding in the rear seat of a car driving over humpback bridges for mile after mile. Two refuelling tankers, which have come from Bangor, Maine, are needed to fill our tanks.

The last time I flew with Rumsfeld – to China – we refuelled over Alaska, and it took three tankers. The crew allowed some of the journalists to sit in the cockpit, which provided a fantastic view of the refuelling tankers, which are only feet away from our cockpit.

After refuelling has finished, Rumsfeld comes back for an on-camera briefing when refuelling has finished. He is wearing a Marines windbreaker which is probably not a smart idea considering that it is an air force crew from Omaha, Nebraska, that is primarily responsible for our safety.

Rumsfeld makes a few comments about the upcoming Nato meetings, but nothing really newsworthy. This is more of a problem for the wire journalists who are hoping to file a story as soon as we land, although I too am somewhat deflated. Rumsfeld refuses to be drawn on the cartoons controversy that is provoking violence in Muslim countries, and especially Afghanistan. Perhaps he does not want to resurrect questions about the images of Abu Ghraib that crossed the whole world causing huge damage to the US image abroad.

After the briefing, we are served dinner – salad with turkey, ham, and cheese, a bowl of soup, and a chocolate ice-cream bar. Beer and alcohol are served too. Later we will be asked to pay $10 per meal, which is about what you would pay on Ryan Air in Europe. Each news organisation has to pay for their seat on the plane, which is calculated as the cheapest economy ticket available for that route.

Following dinner, some of us start to prepare our stories for the next day, while others get ready to catch a few hours sleep since we will have to start working more or less as soon as we land. Before dinner, the Pentagon doctor travelling on the plane has made seat calls, asking whether we need anything – a euphemism for sleeping pills. Since we have to start working as soon as we arrive in Sicily, I decide to add myself to the list.

Day 2: Touchdown in Sicily

Waking up several hours later, one of the crew has asked the pilots whether I can sit in the cockpit while we land in Sicily, which they have kindly agreed to. As we approach the US Sigonella naval air station, we can see a beautiful snow-capped Mount Etna out of the port side of the plane.

After we land, we are quickly bustled into press vans – much like sheep being herded into a pen – that make up the end of Rumsfeld’s motorcade. No more than a few minutes after touchdown, we are already making our way along the winding roads to the picturesque seaside resort of Taormina, with breaktaking views of the ocean and Mount Etna.

The journalists and some Pentagon aides – who have the misfortune of having to “mind” us – stay at a hotel overlooking a bay. Rumsfeld and his aides stay just up the road. All over Taormina security is intense, and our Nato press credentials are scrutinized by the Carabinieri – the Italian paramilitary police - some of whom have obviously been brought in for the occasion since their knowledge of the Taormina roads is about as extensive as ours.

We have a few hours to prepare or file stories, more than we expected because a scheduled joint press conference with the Italian defence minister has been cancelled. Later that evening, we attend a joint press conference with John Reid, the UK minister of defence, but once again not much news is made. Reid says the cartoon controversy will not impact Nato commitment to send forces to the more volatile southern part of Afghanistan.

We are then free for the evening, and after filing our stories most of the reporters head out to sample the local cuisine.

Day 3: The work begins

We were expecting an early morning on Thursday, but we are disappointed to learn that a joint-press conference with Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defence minister, which has the most potential to make news given the recent deterioration in the US-Russian relationship, has been cancelled. So we have to wait for Rumsfeld’s post-conference press conference at 3.15pm.

Rumsfeld arrives armed with a joke that he feels like a yo-yo – we can sympathise but for different reasons - going back and forth over the Atlantic. He was in Munich last week for an annual security conference.

After repeating remarks about the importance of Nato, Rumsfeld takes questions on issues such as the recent election victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, Iranian and Syrian threats to Israel.

I put my hand up for a question after several other reporters have had a crack. After he calls on me, I introduce myself as “Demetri Sevastopulo from the Financial Times” in my Irish accent, and ask a question about the recent Quadrennial Defence Review which raises questions about Russian arms sales.

In typical Rumsfeldian manner, he starts by asking how I pronounce “that”, presumably referring to my surname. It is not clear whether this is a friendly jab, or an attempt to avert the question. Maybe he will tell us on the way home. I jokingly respond with my own pronunciation of “Quadrennial Defence Review”, saying I am not sure how it would be pronounced in Chicago, where Rumsfeld hails from. A minor victory?

Following a bit more back and forth, he finally answers the question, and confirms that the Pentagon is concerned about Russian arms sales, although he denies that the US-Russian military relationship is deteriorating.

After a few more questions the day is over. Most of us wander back to the media filing centre upstairs to finish our work…before heading out for some good Sicilian cuisine. We are hoping the next leg of our trip provides more entertainment.

Day 4: Off to the Maghreb

Our motorcade leaves Taormina with a Carabinieri (Italian military police) escort at about 7.30am the following morning for Signonella naval air station. We take a short flight to Tunis on the first day of Rumsfeld’s three-day tour of the Maghreb – Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

After a short flight from Italy during which Rumsfeld gives a short press conference in which he talks about US counter-terrorism cooperation with the three countries, we land at Tunis-Carthage International Airport where the Pentagon delegation is welcomed by Kamel Morjane, the Tunisian defence minister.

Once again, just minutes after landing we are bustled into our buses for the ride to the Tunisian defence ministry where Rumsfeld is greeted by a military band. Rumsfeld and Morjane have a short meeting, and then hold a press conference during which Rumsfeld praises Tunisia for cooperating with the US on counter-terrorism, a message that will become his mantra for the North African trip.

Before the presser starts, Haraz Ghanbari – a young Associated Press photographer who was one of several journalists allowed upstairs in the ministry of defence for the “photo spray” of Rumsfeld and Morjane – comes down to the lobby, looking slightly shell-shocked. He has been shoved through a glass-panelled door, ripping his new $230 North Face jacket in the process. He muses whether AP will reimburse him. After two (excessively) calm days in Italy, this is an omen of things to come.

After the presser, we are supposed to head to the foreign ministry, but we are gradually starting to realise that in the world of Maghreb officialdom plans change more frequently and unexpectedly than the weather in Ireland. We are whisked off to the residence of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali instead.

While Rumsfeld meets with Ben Ali, his aides and the reporters are treated to coffee, and a selection of dates and Baklava in a large room away from the main part of the residence. Our movements are largely restricted inside the residence. Some of us receive a short unofficial tour of the residence, however, en route to the bathrooms in another part of the house.

About an hour later, the Pentagon aides start to stir, a sign that Rumsfeld is about to come out. I run over to the main entrance with my camera to see if I can get a shot of the defence secretary with the president, but disappointingly Rumsfeld emerges without Ben Ali.

Along with the camera journalists, I sprint back to the press van to make sure we do not miss the motorcade. On these trips, the motorcade does not wait for stragglers. The press and many of the Pentagon aides are taken to the Belvedere Officer’s club for a tasty Tunisian lunch while Rumsfeld dines with senior government officials.

I test out my rusty French over lunch by asking for butter (beurre) for my bread. After several back and forth miscommunications my beer (bière) arrives. The other hacks at my table joke that only an Irishman could order butter and get beer – which is coincidentally called “Celtia”. I try one last time … in English. A few minutes later, an enormous slab of butter arrives on the table, sending most of the room into laughter.

We are soon on the road again to the foreign ministry where Rumsfeld holds talks with Abdelwahab Abdallah, the foreign minister, while we wait outside the foreign ministry in our press vans. After his meetings, we head to Carthage to visit the Punic ruins at Byrsa Hill – one of several cultural events painted into Rumsfeld’s schedule in the Maghreb. After a tour of the Carthage museum, which includes some exquisite mosaics, Rumsfeld unexpectedly agrees to do a press conference. He praises Tunisia for having had “the courage to stand up and speak on behalf of moderation and against violence and against extremism”, but also acknowledges that the subject of political and social reforms in Tunisia has come up in his meetings.

We finally head to our hotel where a filing centre has been set up for those journalists who need to write stories that night. Our evening is free, so a couple of colleagues and I head out for dinner to an excellent restaurant in Sidi Bou Said, a picturesque village filled with blue and white coloured houses overlooking the bay of Tunis. The butter saga happens all over again, until my New York Times colleague asks in English. Minutes later, sculpted pieces of butter arrive at the table. No beer though.

Day 5: The long day

This is going to be the longest day of the trip. Before leaving Tunis, we accompany Rumsfeld on a visit to the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial outside Carthage where 2,841 American servicemen who lost their lives during World War II in North Africa are buried. Rumsfeld signs the guest book “Thanks for all you do for our nation”.

From the memorial, the motorcade speeds to the airport where we take off for Algeria. Rumsfeld is the first US defence secretary to visit the country, which was a non-aligned member during the Cold War. Little more than an hour after taking off, we land in Algiers. The Pentagon aides and journalists descend down the back stairs of the plane as is customary while Rumsfeld comes down the main stairs to meet his welcome party.

We jump into our vans for the motorcade into the city where Rumsfeld will first meet Ahmed Ouyahia, the prime minister. Riding into the city is like driving a bumper car at a fair. The Algerian authorities have not been very successful at blocking off the road for the motorcade which lapses in and out of chaos.

We are jostled about in the back of the van as the driver swerves to avoid other cars that have gotten too close. At one point, the driver slams on the brakes to avoid killing a man that has stepped in front of our vehicle.

As we arrive into the city, which winds up the hill overlooking the bay, I am reminded of the classic 1965 Gillo Pontecorvo movie, The Battle of Algiers, which depicts the violent insurgency by the Front de Libération Nationale against the French colonials in the 1950s. I wonder whether Rumsfeld has seen the film, and whether there are lessons to be learned for the situation in Iraq where the US is struggling to destroy a stubborn insurgency.

Arriving at the prime minister’s residence, we are relieved to be out of traffic (and danger). The camera crews – CNN, AP, and a Pentagon photographer – are allowed inside for a photo spray. Inside, the CNN soundman causes a stir by hitting the chandelier with his boom, knocking a small piece to the ground. Rumsfeld later refers to him as a “bull in a china shop”.

The rest of us hover outside, waiting for the camera crew to come back out. As was the case in Tunisia, we spend a lot of time waiting for meetings to finish, and hoping that the US officials will brief us afterwards. One of the problems with these kinds of trips, however, is that we rarely get an opportunity to talk to the officials of the host country, which prevents us from getting a fuller picture of what took place during the meetings.

We head next to the defence ministry, leaving before Rumsfeld has finished his meetings so we can be there for his arrival. Military bands stand at attention inside a large courtyard lined with a red carpet. After a long wait, Rumsfeld arrives, and after inspecting the military bands and armed soldiers lining the carpet, he enters the building for a meeting with Abdelmalek Guenaizia, the top Algerian defence official. (Under the constitution, President Aziz Bouteflika is the minister for defence).

Once again, the camera crews head inside to take their shots, while the rest of us wait outside. Inside Haraz from AP is having his next adventure. While kneeling down to shoot a photo of Rumsfeld, a woman starts to massage his head – or so he thinks. He suddenly realises however that the woman – who is pregnant – wants him to move out of the way. Before he knows what is happening, the woman starts to slap him repeatedly across the face. It is not clear whether he is going to ask AP for money for trauma therapy.

Not soon after, we are back in our vans for the next rally car event – the drive to Bouteflika’s residence. We arrive well before Rumsfeld. It is not clear whether Rumsfeld is going to have a short meeting with the president, or a longer meeting over lunch. In the end, Rumsfeld spends 95 minutes inside but is not fed. He is not the only one. We stand outside in the heat the entire time, hoping that the presidential household will provide some snacks.

Technically, we are not allowed into the residence, but an exception is made for those who need to use the bathroom, which ends up being most of the press, and some of the Pentagon aides. The trip is starting to take its toll on the journalists. Jamie McIntyre from CNN takes the opportunity outside to catch some sleep, just as he had done at the president’s house in Tunisia the previous day. Jokes about CNN working hard abound.

Haraz chats to a couple of Algerians who joke that his surname sounds like shrimp in Arabic. Enjoying the attention, he decides to nickname himself the “feisty shrimp”.

Finally, Rumsfeld emerges with Bouteflika. The president introduces Rumsfeld who makes a short statement and then, unexpectedly, says he will take questions. We had been told there would be only a brief statement, but again plans have changed.

After several questions from the Pentagon travelling press corps, Rumsfeld asks whether any of the local Algerian journalists have any questions. There is silence. We wonder what this means about press freedoms – perhaps the Algerian journalists were stunned to have an opportunity to ask questions. Bouteflika did not take any questions from either side.

Following the press conference, we head straight for the airport where we depart for Morocco. We arrive in Rabat from where our motorcade departs to the royal stables where Rumsfeld is to view some of the king’s horses. We are looking forward for fun comparisons with Rumsfeld’s trip to Asia last year when the Mongolian defence minister presented him with a nameless horse.

The stables are opulent, and the horses magnificent. We have entered another world. The stable master arranges for 10 horses - racing stallions and show horses - to parade in front of Rumsfeld, who resembles Lawrence of Arabia sipping his Moroccan tea.

Suddenly, the calm of the stables is destroyed by the sound of CNN’s camera crashing to the ground. Rumsfeld is too busy to shout something across. CNN is reduced to using a hand-held recorder for the remainder of the visit to the stud.

As the horses are paraded in the paddock, Rumsfeld jokes that he would like the stable master’s job, travelling all over the world buying horses. Later, he changes his mind.

“Maybe the stallion has the best job in the world,” he jokes

Rumsfeld is presented with a brilliant saddle that appears to be decorated in some kind of gold thread. The stable has also laid on a magnificent spread of dates, fruit, chocolates, and pastries. Our mouths water. Unfortunately, however, we have literally only a couple of minutes to guzzle down – it must have looked like sacrilege – a few delicious snacks.

We are driven back to Rabat to the Hilton hotel. Most of us head immediately to file our stories, which focus on the Algerian visit. Later that night, I join colleagues from AFP, AP, Reuters, Voice of America, and the New York Times, at a wonderful Moroccan restaurant situated inside a traditional riad house.

Most of my colleagues have been shopping for presents already – some more than once. I am concerned because I came back from 12 days vacation in Morocco in January without a present for my girlfriend, and this time I am in danger of failing again.

After a delicious meal consisting of various dishes of couscous, chicken pastillas, vegetable soup, and other plates, we head back to the hotel, finally hoping to get a good nights sleep since our departure the next day – at 9am – is relatively late.

In the morning, our motorcade rides back to Rabat for our flight to Fez. The Pentagon advance team – groups of junior officials who arrive in a country in advance of a visit to make all the appropriate arrangements - has had a hard time because King Mohammed has decided to see Rumsfeld at his mountain retreat in Ifrane, southwest of Fez, one of the ancient imperial cities, instead of Marrakech as originally planned.

The ride from Fez to Ifrane takes us along quiet roads lined with cedar and olive trees. Arriving in Ifrane feels a little like entering a Swiss mountain village. After 45 minutes we reach the king’s palace. Along the way, we have another motor incident. At one point, everybody in the press bus is thrown forward as the driver slams on the breaks to avoid hitting the van ahead of us in the convoy. He is too late!

Rumsfeld enters for his audience with the king, while almost everybody else waits outside. Once again, we are not allowed to enter the palace. After some bargaining however, we are allowed to enter in groups of three to make a bathroom pit stop. This is a real treat. In January when I visited the country, police would stop me from photographing just the walls of the palace.

Rumsfeld eventually comes out, and gives a short press conference. After taking some questions mostly from the Pentagon press pack, he suggests it would be courteous to take some questions from local journalists. Again, silence. We head back to Fez airport for the flight back to Washington. After saying his farewells to the Moroccan dignitaries, and inspecting some Moroccan soldiers, we all board the E4-B.

On the flight back, we once again refuel mid-air, which Major Lowell “Skip” Bailey and his pilot colleagues are generous enough to allow us to watch from the jump seat. With the clear blue sky, the view is spectacular, and it looks a little like a large shark is swimming above our aircraft.

Back in our cabin, we settle in for the rest of the 9-hour flight to Washington. Everything is calm – we are all exhausted – until the “feisty shrimp” reveals that his penchant for getting hit is not limited to North Africa. He shows us a hilarious series of photos of his dust-up with one of Michael Jackson’s security detail at the trial last year. The bodyguard – who was about twice his size – was arrested and had his gun permit revoked.

As we sum up the ups and downs of the trip, we joke about how a lot of North Africans are probably shaking their heads in wonderment at the weak bladders of Pentagon journalists.

“It gives a whole new meaning to the royal we,” jokes McIntyre.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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