Washington Prowler

Flyover Launcher

Who was on board Air Force One over New York? And who is Louis Caldera?

By 4.29.09

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This morning, at least one news organization and one citizen advocacy group was mulling filing a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the release of the manifest for the Air Force One New York flyover to determine if any Obama donors or other interested parties were on board the flight.

The suspicion that civilians -- or a high-ranking White House official -- may have been on the flight is the result, in part, of the involvement of Louis Caldera, the Obama Administration's director of the White House Military Office, who authorized the New York City flyover, and who was brought into the administration, say Obama donors and transition team members, for his understanding of the Pentagon's inner-workings, his relationship with high-powered donors with backgrounds in the defense industry, and his ties to both Bill and Hillary Clinton and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.

"He's a fixer in the classic sense of the term, and I wouldn't be surprised if there is more to the flyover story than we know," says one former Obama defense transition team member. "He would not have been my first choice to put in that position given his background, but it wasn't my decision. The fact that he is in that position raises questions of judgment on the part of [chief of staff Rahm] Emanuel, I think."

Caldera served for two years as Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Army, and back then was tasked, according to former Clinton insiders, with identifying "politically friendly" military personnel who would be helpful to the Clintons, as well as interacting with VIPs from Hollywood and the defense industry to keep them happy. During Caldera's tenure at the Pentagon, his choice to serve as deputy inspector general, Maj. Gen. Larry G. Smith, was scuttled after it was revealed that an alleged sexual harassment complaint against him had been removed from his personnel record.

Caldera, who served in the California state assembly, also served as a vice chancellor of the California state university system. It was this background that allowed Gov. Bill Richardson to press for Caldera to be brought on as the president of the University of New Mexico. Caldera was not considered a top tier candidate for that post until Richardson's staff inserted a job requirement that the president be required to have a top security clearance. According to former Clinton administration sources, that job requirement almost ensured the only qualified candidate would be Richardson's friend, Caldera. Almost 80 percent of the faculty of University of New Mexico voted against the hiring of Caldera, but Richardson and the school's board of regents overruled the faculty's input.

Caldera's controversial background doesn't end there. In 2002, Caldera was placed on the board of IndyMac, before its failure and placement in receivership due to its poor capitalization as a result of poor mortgage investments, IndyMac Bank was the largest savings and loan in Southern California and seventh largest mortgage originator in the United States.

According to White House sources, while Caldera has apologized, and Rahm Emanuel's office has launched an "investigation" into the use of Air Force One for publicity purposes and a low flyover, the investigation's instigation began in the White House Counsel's Office, run by Gregory Craig.

The White House is already on record as saying that only Air Force personnel were on Air Force One. Yesterday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters: "I'm told that -- keep in mind this was a -- this was two training missions that, in the end, became a picture mission, which the President having quite clearly called today a mistake and one that he will ensure doesn't happen again. Because this was a training mission, the only people on that plane were Air Force personnel."

But there are suspicions there is more to it. "This is a bigger deal than the White House is letting on, and there are some nervous people there, and I'm not clear why," says the former transition team member. "If I were still advising them, I'd say live up to the transparency pledge and release all the documents. But from the get-go, this was a top secret operation, which raises a whole bunch of red flags."

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