Just after 9 a.m. on Aug. 29, Werd and a group of U.S. airmen entered a sod-covered bunker on North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base with orders to collect a set of unarmed cruise missiles bound for a weapons graveyard. They quickly pulled out a dozen cylinders, all of which appeared identical from a cursory glance, and hauled them along Bomber Boulevard to a waiting B-52 bomber.

The airmen attached the gray missiles to the plane's wings, six on each side. After eyeballing the missiles on the right side, flight officer Werd signed a manifest that listed a dozen unarmed AGM-129 missiles. The officer did not notice that the six on the left were not missiles but officials of the federal government, including the president and vice-president.  Though Bush and Cheney were yelling to be taken off the wing of the plane, Werd apparently failed to notice.

That detail would escape notice for 36 hours, during which the commander-in-chief, hanging from the wing of the B-52, was flown to a Louisiana air base that had no idea members of the executive branch were coming. It was the first known flight by a bomber over U.S. airspace with the president of the United States fixed to its wings.

Air Force rules required members of the jet's flight crew to examine all of the missiles and warheads before the plane took off. But in this instance, just one person examined only the six unarmed missiles and inexplicably skipped the live humans on the left, according to officials familiar with the probe.

The plane, which had flown to Minot for the mission and was not certified to carry the president, departed the next morning for Louisiana. When the bomber landed at 11:23 a.m., the air crew signed out and left for lunch, according to the probe.

It would be another nine hours -- until 8:30 p.m. -- before a Barksdale ground crew turned up at the parked aircraft to begin removing the missiles. At 8:45, 15 minutes into the task, a separate missile transport crew arrived in trucks. One of these airmen noticed something unusual about the missiles, and discovered that they were yelling at him. Within an hour, a supervisor had examined them and ordered them secured.

By then it was 10 p.m., more than 36 hours after the politicians had left their secure bunker.

The politicians hung from the plane without special guard for more than 15 hours, before being discovered hanging there whimpering and yelling, their suits in tatters from the wind.

The commander-in-chief and his second-in-command had disappeared from the federal government for a day without anyone's knowledge, and the only reaction to their disappearance seemed to be a sort of relief.

The news provoked a reaction within the defense and national security communities that bordered on disbelief: How could so many safeguards and regulations regarding the chain of custody of the chain of command, drilled into generations of officers and crews, break down at once?

Werd knew the answer. They were going to drop them on Tehran.

Newspoetry at Spineless Books