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Bush slammed over secret Iraqi trip lies

Reuters

Washington - United States President George Bush's flight plan was falsified last week to hide his Thanksgiving Day visit to Iraq, the White House said on Thursday, in another example of the extraordinary, and deceptive, steps taken in arranging the battle-zone trip.

Critics have said admitted deceptions over the trip threaten Bush's credibility, which has also been challenged on larger issues such as his assertions Iraq was developing alleged weapons of mass destruction that have not been found.

On Thursday, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan read for reporters a British air traffic control statement that the flight plan filed for the trip said the plane was a Gulfstream 5, rather than Air Force One.

He described the step as a reasonable security precaution on a visit intended to boost morale for US troops, who are serving extended deployments in Iraq and threatened by insurgent attacks.

"The American people understand the importance of not compromising security, not only for the president of the United States, but for those on board the plane and those on the ground as well," McClellan said

But David Wise, author of the 1973 book The Politics Of Lying, said: "The trip certainly I'm sure gave a morale boost to the troops, but that's almost beside the point."

"The question is, should the government engage in lying in order to essentially... protect a photo op? The answer is, no it shouldn't," he said. "It's a serious business when government lies, and eventually it does hurt a government and a president's credibility."

Bush, speaking at the annual ceremony for the national Christmas tree on Thursday, made light of his stealthy travel.

"He travels in the dark of night. He arrives unannounced. And he's gone before you know he was there. Santa, I can assure you it's a lot easier on a flying sled than it is on Air Force One."

News of the Baghdad trip dominated the media for days but some dubious details of the White House account have emerged.

Officials changed their version of radio contact during the flight and one of the most published photos from the trip had a shade of deception. The picture showed the commander-in-chief apparently passing around turkey on a platter when the bird was reportedly only for decoration.

Democrats have generally avoided criticising Bush's visit but many have said the political theatre does not distract from a worsening guerrilla war and mounting US casualties in Iraq.

For Thanksgiving, the White House had told reporters that Bush would be at his Texas ranch, eating turkey, trimmings and pecan pie, and an official had told some on the day that he was making calls to troops.

Instead, Bush was spirited away and the visit was not reported until after the president left the Iraqi capital.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson William Shumann, asked about the legality of filing an inaccurate flight plan, said, "We can't discuss anything related to that flight."

The disclosure of the deceptive flight plan came as the White House made the second revision in its story of another pilot spotting the plane off the English coast.

With British Airways denying its pilots had contacted Air Force One, McClellan on Thursday quoted British traffic control as saying its investigation concluded it was a pilot for another, unidentified airline, who had contacted controllers.

McClellan said the White House was merely trying to be helpful to journalists. "What we always try to do... is to provide you a little colour of important events," he said. "We reported it based on what we knew."

First lady Laura Bush pledged in an NBC television interview that no secret trips were planned for Bush over the coming Christmas holidays."No surprise visits," she said.

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