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Riding with Secretary Rice

The view from the "pool" car of Secretary of State Rice's Middle East motorcade.

BEIRUT - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced trip to Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday. NBC was the TV pool traveling with the secretary. "The Pool" consists of a crew and producer who cover the secretary for all five American networks.

We were told Wednesday night, in Saudi Arabia, to be on the buses at 7:45 a.m. ready to go to Abu Dhabi, where Secretary Rice was going to have some meetings with the leaders of Dubai and the foreign ministers of the Gulf Corporation Council. Of course, we all should have figured something was up when the State Department press folks told us there was no schedule available yet, but we all went to bed planning on a light day in Dubai.

While we slept, the Lebanese press learned of the visit and it was leaking out. The Diplomatic Security team that protects the secretary had late night meetings with the secretary's staff and expressed their view that, by losing the element of surprise, the secretary (and her traveling party) would be at a somewhat greater risk in Beirut. The decision was made to continue with the visit.

We were told about the unannounced trip to Beirut at about 7:30 a.m. by press spokesman Sean McCormack, but he asked us not to report anything until we landed and to not announce times for her meetings. Just who she would be meeting with?

In my roll as "pool producer" I had to try to figure out a way to feed the tape of the secretary's visit to Beirut without letting anyone know she was going there. I called NBC's usual person in Beirut, planning to ask if he was available to do something for us. As soon as I identified myself he said, "I was waiting for you to call." He knew more about the schedule than I did! I asked him to meet us at the prime minister's office, where he would take the tape to a feed point to get everything we shot back to the states.

On the flight from Riyadh to Beirut, the secretary came back to brief us on why she wanted to go to Beirut and what she hoped to accomplish. The Diplomatic Security guys on the plane were much more animated than usual as we got closer to Beirut. As soon as we touched down, we got a shot of the secretary coming down the stairway from the plane. Then we jumped into our assigned van in the motorcade and things got interesting. 

Our first stop was a visit with the Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir. He lives in a beautiful old church complex called Bkirki, in the mountains overlooking Beirut. He is very influential in Lebanese politics. Once the motorcade started rolling we all knew this was not a normal 50-minute drive into the mountains. The motorcade moved at between 50 and 80 miles per hour through downtown Beirut. These were armor-plated Suburbans and armor-plated 10 passenger vans. It was amazing. 

All the drivers are very well trained, but there is nothing like taking corners at 55 mph while people are just a few feet away standing on the curb. Every vehicle had a security officer with not only a sidearm, but also an assault rifle at the ready. Several Lebanese government security police were riding in the back of an open top truck - rifles drawn and ready. 

Normally, when a motorcade gets on the highway, it is single file with the a few police cars or motorcycle police leading the way and the press in the back. Not this motorcade. To keep any possible attackers guessing, Diplomatic Security used what they call a more "aggressive" motorcade.  All the vehicles constantly changed positions. At times we were doing 80 mph, three vehicles abreast on one side of a divided highway. It was like NASCAR and any number of chase scenes in the movies. 

I have ridden in motorcades all over the world for about 18 years -- from a Striker armored personnel carrier in Mosul, Iraq to a Greyhound bus in Iowa. This was the best ride I have ever had. Amazingly, only one member of the press got sick riding in the back of one of the vans.

Once we got to Bkirki it was clear all of the local media knew our schedule. There were lots of cameras and live trucks. After a photo-op and short statement by the secretary it was back in the vans and down the mountain, this time taking a somewhat different route to the office of the prime minister for a meeting and joint news conference with the secretary and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. 

Once again there were lots of cameras and live trucks. Our local producer met us there and took our tape to be fed out for everyone. We moved on to a meeting with the Sa'ad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Junblatt. Hariri is the son of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who was assassinated last year.

Next up was an added meeting with Nabib Berri, the @!$%#e Speaker of the Parliament -- another photo-op. Finally, we headed back to the airport and got back on the plane and off to Abu Dhabi. The visit lasted less than five hours, but I am sure the NBC crew of Geoff Doyle, Jim Greene and I will not soon forget our visit to Beirut.