White House aide resigns over NYC flyover

May 8, 2009 4:40:39 PM PDT
The White House official who authorized a $328,835 photo-op of Air Force One soaring above New York City resigned under fire Friday as the administration tried to move past the embarrassing incident that sent panicked workers rushing into the streets amid flashbacks of Sept. 11. As former Army Secretary Louis Caldera took the fall for the flyover, the White House released the findings of an internal investigation that portrayed him as out of the loop in a cycle of missed messages and questionable judgments as plans for the photo shoot proceeded.

Caldera said he didn't know Air Force One would fly at 1,000 feet during the April 27 photo promotion, according to the investigation findings. He also failed to read an e-mail message describing the operation and seemed unaware of the potential for public fear, the findings said.

Local officials had been notified in advance. But it was a shock to New Yorkers who looked up to see the Boeing 747 and its fighter jet escort flying near the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan's financial district, a terrifying reminder of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which jets brought down the two towers of the World Trade Center.

The Federal Aviation Administration told local officials in advance of the flight, but asked them not to disclose it to the public, the White House report said. There was a prepared statement for the FAA's New York regional office and for the Air Force in Washington to release if anyone called to ask about the flight.

In his resignation letter, released by the White House, Caldera said the controversy had "made it impossible for me to effectively lead the White House Military Office," which is responsible for presidential aircraft. "Moreover, it has become a distraction in the important work you are doing as president," he wrote in the letter addressed to President Barack Obama.

Last month, Obama called the flight a mistake and vowed it would not be repeated. Obama had no statement Friday; White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president had accepted Caldera's resignation.

Caldera's office approved the photo-op, which cost $35,000 in fuel alone for the plane and two jet fighter escorts. The Air Force estimated the photo shoot cost taxpayers $328,835.

White House officials said the purpose of the flight was to update the official photo of the plane, known as Air Force One when the president is aboard. In releasing its report and the resignation letter, the White House also released a photo of the blue-and-white plane high above the Statue of Liberty, with New Jersey in the background.

The White House report, which did not address officials' conduct outside the White House, portrayed Caldera as deaf to concerns. After the flight, Caldera met with top administration officials and was asked if the White House had been notified. "The director responded yes, someone had mentioned it to him," according to the report.

Later in the meeting, a White House official presented Caldera a letter accepting responsibility. He made some edits and took responsibility because he thought it was the "standup thing to do."

The White House report also indicated the operation was packed with potential opportunities for administration officials to call it off.

Deputy military director George Mulligan said he first told Caldera about the proposed photo shoot on April 20 - a week before it was scheduled to take place. The same aide also said Caldera should notify deputy chief of staff Jim Messina because it was an unusual move.

Caldera told officials he didn't recall the conversation. Ultimately, Caldera didn't tell Messina or Gibbs. "When asked why he failed to do so, he did not offer a coherent explanation," according to the report.

Caldera also told officials that he didn't read an e-mail detailing the flyover plans until it was over. Mulligan, Caldera's second-in-command, sent him an e-mail message on April 24 advising him again to tell Messina and Gibbs about the photo shoot.

Caldera said he hadn't seen the e-mail because he has two official accounts. He also said he was suffering from severe muscle aches and had been prescribed pain medication.

The report said Mulligan believed "the breakdown was the lack of public notification." Col. Scott Turner, head of the White House military office's presidential airlift group, said "the FAA had taken the lead on public affairs and coordination," according to the report.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown declined to comment. Friday's release is hardly the end of the matter for the White House. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a review at the Pentagon; the Air Force is conducting its own review as well.

In a May 5 letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Gates apologized for the incident, saying "we deeply regret the anxiety and alarm that resulted from this mission."

McCain posted the letter on his Web site Friday.

"I am concerned that this highly public and visible mission did not include an appropriate review and approval by senior Air Force and (Department of Defense) officials," Gates wrote.

Gibbs said Obama has ordered a review of how the White House Military Office is set up, and how it reports to the White House and the Air Force.

That review, to be conducted by Messina and Gates, will also offer recommendations to Obama designed to ensure that such an incident will not happen again, Gibbs said.

When Obama appointed Caldera, who was Army secretary in the Clinton administration, he said: "I know he'll bring to the White House the same dedication and integrity that have earned him the highest praise in every post."

Caldera's resignation takes effect May 22, but he is done at the White House Military Office. He said he will use the two weeks of his employment to complete the necessary steps to leave the White House.

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Associated Press Writer Michael J. Sniffen contributed to this report.

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