On the Plane

The Perez Patrol


Carol Perez, deputy executive secretary for Condoleezza Rice. (Susan Biddle, Washington Post)

Carol Perez often barely makes it from one crisis abroad to the next. No, not Middle East wars. Not North Korean nukes. Not turmoil in Pakistan or Venezuela.

Perez plans and runs the secretary of state's frenetic overseas trips, through 106 countries so far.

When the military plane flying Condoleezza Rice's entourage out of Irbil broke down last fall, Perez discovered that the State Department's international cell phones did not work in northern Iraq. She scrambled to borrow local cell phones, only to find that they operated on $5 phone cards.

"I was calling everyone I knew in the U.S. and at other installations to find a plane, as the guy next to me is scratching off one five-dollar card after the next to keep calls going," Perez recalled during Rice's current trip to the Middle East. "I was hoping there might be something flying above us that could scoop down and pick her up. But believe it or not, there's not one number to call where you can check everything."

More than four hours and dozens of phone cards later, Perez found a substitute. But when she finally got everyone on board, she had to figure out how to get Rice to a meeting of six major powers in London on Iran's nuclear program, a meeting Rice had called. By the time Rice's plane landed in London, a helicopter was waiting to take her to the meeting, which already was well underway. America's top diplomat made it for the last 45 minutes, in time to win agreement to impose new sanctions on Tehran.

Perez, deputy executive secretary, a career diplomat who has served in Spain and Italy, takes care of every detail of the secretary of state's travels, from overseeing the small arsenal of weapons aboard the plane for the diplomatic security team to finding hotels on short notice that have 80 to 90 rooms. Once she had to carry two large satellite dishes into Iraq to conduct classified communications, only to have her aides drop the bigger and better one from a hotel rooftop.

She is the first woman to hold the job and, as a Cleveland native, shares Rice's passion for the Cleveland Browns. While Rice listened to the games on radio with her father in Alabama, Perez went to the games with her father, who had season tickets.

Perez takes care of everyone on board the blue-and-white modified Boeing 757 -- diplomats, flight crew, military attaches, secretarial staff, communicators, diplomatic security guards and a dozen reporters. On a trip last year through Asia, the chief Air Force steward broke his toe.

By the time the plane landed for refueling in Pago Pago, Samoa, blood had collected dangerously under the steward's toenail and he was in serious pain. So at 3 a.m. Perez mobilized the flight doctor and scrounged for materials to pierce a hole through the steward's nail. They had to resort to a paper clip, sterilized with matches.

"In the terminal there was a big Samoan, wide-eyed, watching as the doctor lit the matches under the paper clip" Perez recalled. "Blood spewed everywhere. What he must have thought!"

That round-the-world trip covered 31,263 miles across Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Rice and her entourage flew over four oceans and through the international dateline twice in 10 days.

Among the moments she most remembers are the close calls. The worst so far was the flight from Berlin to London, when 100-mile-per-hour hurricane winds were hitting Britain. "The pilots came back and said, 'Well, we have major problems," Perez recalled. "I went to Rice and told her... that we were looking to see if we could divert to some place like Spain. But she said she'd like to try to get in."

"I went up with the pilot and the tower was saying not to land. It was like being on a roller coaster, going up and down. As we came around to land, the wind then came up behind us and it was like a rocket punch at the last minute. But we landed. We try to do what the secretary says."

No trip initinerary is final, even when the secretary leaves Washington. When a stop was added after an earthquake in Pakistan, Perez had to work out the logistics of diverting to Islamabad without interrupting international relief efforts that had overwhelmed the airport. Then she had to adjust Rice's scheduled stops in three other countries that day.

Then there are pesky passport problems. On the current trip, the Agence France Press correspondent, who is from Muslim Malaysia, has a passport that stipulates it is not valid for travel to Israel, the voyage's last stop. Perez had to scramble to convince the Israeli government to let him enter anyway.

When Rice added a stop in Moscow last year, in the middle of a trip, Perez stayed up all night filling out visa request forms for the entire plane, requesting digital pictures from Washington for some and finding a photo shop open all night to get new passport pictures for Rice's security detail. Perez carries all passports during each trip and goes through immigration on behalf of everyone on the plane, allowing them to conduct business.

And some trips, such as Rice's Beirut visit, are so secret that Perez has to arrange clearance to fly through a country's airspace via various embassies just before the plane approaches.

"Sometimes we've done it in the middle of the night," Perez said.

-- Robin Wright

By  |  August 1, 2007; 1:08 PM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East, July 2007
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Sounds like a lot of work! You do a great job behind the scenes!

Posted by: Alex (Laurel, MD) | August 1, 2007 11:02 PM

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