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WHITE HOUSE CHANGES VERSION

British deny pilot saw Iraq-bound Air Force One

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration yesterday changed its story about a British Airways pilot's spotting of Air Force One during the president's stealth trip to Iraq on Thanksgiving Day.

The original story held that the airline's pilot had talked to Air Force One and that he kept the secret of President Bush's Thanksgiving Day flight to Baghdad,

according to Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, who provided the earlier account. But after British Airways denied such a conversation took place, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday the airline's pilot never contacted Air Force One.

"The conversation was between the British Airways plane and the London control tower," McClellan said.

It was also the London control tower, not an Air Force One pilot, as in the original story, that misidentified Air Force One as a much smaller "Gulfstream 5" aircraft, McClellan said.

He said Air Force One pilots overheard the conversation while flying over the west coast of England, and the British Airways plane could be identified by its call sign when it spoke to the tower.

McClellan declined to say whether Air Force One had sent a false electronic identification or whether controllers were in on the deception.

British Airways said it could not confirm the new account.

White House officials have said the elaborate secrecy surrounding the trip was needed to ensure Bush's security in Iraq, but some critics accused the administration of dramatizing the trip for political purposes.

McClellan explained the change in the White House story by saying, "I don't think everybody was clear on exactly how that conversation happened."

British Airways said it could not confirm the White House's new version of the Air Force One story.

"We've had no reports from any of our pilots with regard to Air Force One," airline spokeswoman Honor Verrier said.

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