This is the first of five articles adapted from "Plan of Attack," a book by Bob Woodward that is a behind-the-scenes account of how and why President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq. Simon & Schuster. © 2004.
Shortly after New Year's Day 2003, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had a private moment with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.
In April 2002, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, center, briefs President Bush, Vice President Cheney, left, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the Oval Office.
(Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
About 'Plan of Attack' (The Washington Post, Apr 18, 2004)
Buildup Accelerates For Invasion of Iraq (The Washington Post, Jan 6, 2003)
U.S. Decision On Iraq Has Puzzling Past (The Washington Post, Jan 12, 2003)
Iraq Hunt To Extend To March, Blix Says (The Washington Post, Jan 14, 2003)
U.S. Wants U.N. to Talk to Scientists Outside Iraq (The Washington Post, Jan 15, 2003)
Bush felt the effort to get United Nations weapons inspections inside Iraq on an aggressive track to make Saddam Hussein crack was not working. "This pressure isn't holding together," Bush told her.
The media reports of smiling Iraqis leading inspectors around, opening up buildings and saying, "See, there's nothing here," infuriated Bush, who then would read intelligence reports showing the Iraqis were moving and concealing things. It wasn't clear what was being moved, but it looked to Bush as if Hussein was about to fool the world again. It looked as if the inspections effort was not sufficiently aggressive, would take months or longer, and was likely doomed to fail.
"I was concerned people would focus on not Saddam, not the danger that he posed, not his deception, but focus on the process and thereby Saddam would be able to kind of skate through once again," Bush recalled in an interview last December.
"I felt stressed," he added. All the holiday parties at the White House had not helped. "My jaw muscle got so tight. And it was not just because I was smiling and shaking so many hands. There was a lot of tension during that last holiday season."
There was another factor at work that was not publicly known. Sensitive intelligence coverage on U.N. inspections chief Hans Blix indicated that he was not reporting everything and not doing all the things he maintained he was doing. Some in Bush's war cabinet believed Blix was a liar.
"How is this happening?" Bush asked Rice. "Saddam is going to get stronger."
Blix had told Rice, "I have never complained about your military pressure. I think it's a good thing." She relayed this to the president.
"How long does he think I can do this?" Bush asked. "A year? I can't. The United States can't stay in this position while Saddam plays games with the inspectors."
"You have to follow through on your threat," Rice said. "If you're going to carry out coercive diplomacy, you have to live with that decision."
"He's getting more confident, not less," Bush said of Hussein. "He can manipulate the international system again. We're not winning.
"Time is not on our side here," Bush told Rice. "Probably going to have to, we're going to have to go to war."
In Rice's mind, this was the moment the president decided the United States would go to war with Iraq. Military planning had been underway for more than a year even as Bush sought a diplomatic solution through the United Nations. He would continue those efforts, at least publicly, for 10 more weeks, but he had reached a point of no return.
The president also informed Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, of his decision over the holidays. Rove had gone to Crawford to brief Bush on the confidential plan for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. While Laura Bush sat reading a book, Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation on the campaign's strategy, themes and timetable.
Opening his laptop, he displayed for Bush in bold letters on a dark blue background:
Peace in World
More Compassionate America
Cares About People Like Me
Leads a Strong Team
All things being equal, the president asked, when would you like to begin the campaign and active fundraising?
Rove said he wanted the president to start that February or March and begin raising the money, probably $200 million. He had a schedule. In February, March and April 2003, there would be between 12 and 16 fundraisers.
"We got a war coming," the president told Rove flatly, "and you're just going to have to wait." He had decided. "The moment is coming." The president did not give a date, but he left the impression with Rove that it would be January or February or March at the latest.
"Remember the problem with your dad's campaign," Rove replied. "A lot of people said he got started too late."
"I understand," Bush said. "I'll tell you when I'm comfortable with you starting."
Bush Orders a War Plan
Rice was the only member of his war cabinet whom Bush directly asked for a recommendation of whether to go to war.
"What do you think?" he had asked her a few weeks before. "Should we do this?"
"Yes," she said. "Because it isn't American credibility on the line, it is the credibility of everybody that this gangster can yet again beat the international system." As important as credibility was, she said, "Credibility should never drive you to do something you shouldn't do." But this was much bigger, she advised, something that should be done. "To let this threat in this part of the world play volleyball with the international community this way will come back to haunt us someday. That is the reason to do it."
Other than Rice, Bush said he didn't need to ask the principal advisers whether they thought he should go to war. He knew what Vice President Cheney thought, and he decided not to ask Secretary of State Colin L. Powell or Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"I could tell what they thought," the president recalled. "I didn't need to ask them their opinion about Saddam Hussein. If you were sitting where I sit, you could be pretty clear. I think we've got an environment where people feel free to express themselves."
One person not around was Karen Hughes, one of his top advisers and longtime communications director. Hughes, who had resigned the previous summer to return to Texas, probably knew how Bush thought and talked as much as anyone.
"I asked Karen," the president recalled. "She said if you go to war, exhaust all opportunities to achieve [regime change] peacefully. And she was right. She actually captured my own sentiments."
More than a year before -- on Nov. 21, 2001 -- Bush had told Rumsfeld that he wanted to develop a plan for war in Iraq. Since that time the defense secretary had been working closely with Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, and other U.S. commanders, as well as Bush and other members of the war cabinet to develop a plan even as Bush pursued diplomacy through the United Nations.
At times, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. thought of Bush as a circus rider with one foot on a "diplomacy" steed and his other on the "war" steed, both reins in his hands, leading down a path to regime change. Each horse had blinders on. It was now clear that diplomacy would not get him to his goal, so Bush had let go of that horse and was standing only on the war steed.
Rumsfeld had been trying to put himself in the president's shoes, attempting to make sure that Bush didn't get so far out in words, body language or mental state that he couldn't get back from a decision to go to war as the United States built up forces around Iraq.
On the other hand, Rumsfeld felt there was a time when the president should not want to walk back, and really could not. That time would be well before Bush had to decide to put Special Operations Forces inside Iraq, the point of no return identified by Franks.
"I can remember trying to give him as early a clue as possible that that was coming down the road," Rumsfeld recalled in an interview.
"There comes a moment as all these things are happening," he added, "when we have to look a neighboring country in the eye, and they have to make a decision that puts them at risk. And at that moment, the president needs to know that."
Back in Washington in early January 2003, Bush took Rumsfeld aside.
"Look, we're going to have to do this, I'm afraid," he said. "I don't see how we're going to get him to a position where he will do something in a manner that's consistent with the U.N. requirements, and we've got to make an assumption that he will not."
It was enough of a decision for Rumsfeld. He asked to bring in some key foreign players.
The president gave his approval but pressed Rumsfeld again. When is my last decision point?
"When your people, Mr. President, look people in the eye and tell them you're going."
One of the key players that had to be notified and brought along was Saudi Arabia. U.S. forces would have to be sent through and from Saudi territory into Iraq. Rescue, communications and refueling support were not going to be enough. Of the five other countries on Iraq's border, only Kuwait and Jordan supported a military operation. The 500 miles of Saudi-Iraqi border were critical.
So on Saturday, Jan. 11, Cheney invited Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador, to his West Wing office. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were also there.
Prince Bandar had served during four American presidencies. At age 53, Bandar was almost a fifth estate in Washington, amplifying Saudi influence and wealth. He insisted on dealing directly with presidents and is almost family to Bush's father, former president George H. W. Bush. And he had maintained his special entree to the Oval Office under this President Bush.
Sitting on the edge of the table in Cheney's office, Myers took out a large map labeled TOP SECRET NOFORN. The NOFORN meant NO FOREIGN -- classified material not to be seen by any foreign nation.
Myers explained that the first part of the battle plan would be a massive aerial bombing campaign over several days against Iraq's Republican Guard divisions, the security services and command and control of Hussein's forces. A land attack would follow through Kuwait, plus a northern front through Turkey with the 4th Infantry Division if Turkey approved it. Included was massive use of Special Forces and intelligence paramilitary teams to secure every place in Iraq from which Hussein could launch a missile or airplane against Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Israel.
Special Forces and intelligence operatives would distribute $300 million to local Iraqi tribal leaders, religious leaders and the Iraqi armed forces.
The Saudi-Iraqi border would have to be covered. Special Forces, intelligence teams and other strikes would have to be launched from there. If there were alternatives, Myers said, they would not be asking the Saudis.
Bandar knew that his country could create a cover for the arrival of U.S. forces by closing a civilian airport at Al Jawf in the northern desert, flying Saudi helicopters day and night as a routine border patrol for a week, and then withdrawing. The U.S. Special Forces could set up a base there that might not attract much attention.
Staring intently at the 2-by-3-foot Top Secret map, Bandar, a former fighter pilot, asked a few questions about air operations. Could he have a copy of the large map so he could brief Crown Prince Abdullah? he asked, referring to the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia.
"Above my pay grade," Myers said.
"We'll give you all the information you want," Rumsfeld said. As for the map, he added, "I would rather not give it to you, but you can take notes if you want."
"No, no, it's not important. Just let me look at it," Bandar said. He tried to take it all in -- the large ground thrusts, the location of Special Forces or intelligence teams all designated on the map.
"You can count on this," Rumsfeld said, pointing to the map. "You can take that to the bank. This is going to happen."
"What is the chance of Saddam surviving this?" Bandar asked. He believed Hussein was intent on killing everyone involved at a high level with the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including himself.
Rumsfeld and Myers didn't answer.
"Saddam, this time, will be out, period?" Bandar asked skeptically. "What will happen to him?"
Cheney, who had been quiet as usual, replied, "Prince Bandar, once we start, Saddam is toast."
"I am convinced now that this is something I can take to my Prince Abdullah," Bandar said, "and think I can convince him. But I cannot go and tell him that Myers and Rumsfeld and you told me. I have to carry a message from the president."
"I'll get back to you," the vice president replied. After Bandar had left, Rumsfeld voiced some concern about the vice president's "toast" remark. "Jesus Christ, what was that all about, Dick?"
"I didn't want to leave any doubt in his mind what we're planning to do," Cheney said.
In his car, Bandar scribbled out details from what he had seen on the map. When he got home, he took a large blank map of the region that had been supplied by the CIA and began reconstructing the plan piece by piece.
The next day, Sunday, Rice called Bandar to invite him to meet with the president the following day, Monday, Jan. 13. At the meeting, the president told Bandar that he was receiving advice and reports from some in his administration that in the event of war he would have to contend with a massive Arab and Islamic reaction that would put American interests at risk.
"Mr. President, you're assuming you're attacking Saudi Arabia and trying to capture King Fahd," Bandar said. "This is Saddam Hussein. People are not going to shed tears over Saddam Hussein, but if he's attacked one more time by America and he survives and stays in power after you've finished this, whatever it is, yes, everybody will follow his word. If they say attack the American Embassy, they will go and attack it."
Before the Gulf War in 1991, Bandar recalled for the president, "Go back to look at what was said to your father -- the Arab world will rise from the Atlantic to the Gulf!" Well, that didn't happen then, and it would not happen this time, he said. The problem would be if Hussein survived. The Saudis needed assurance that Hussein was going to be toast.
"You got the briefing from Dick, Rummy and General Myers?" the president asked.
"Any questions for me?"
No, Mr. President.
"That is the message I want you to carry for me to the crown prince," Bush said. "The message you're taking is mine, Bandar."
"That's fine, Mr. President."
Bandar believed it was exactly what Cheney had told Bush to say.
"Anything else for me?"
No, Mr. President.
Bandar Told Ahead of Powell
One of Rice's jobs was, as she called it, "to read the secretaries": Powell and Rumsfeld. Since the president had told Rumsfeld about his decision to go to war, he had better tell Powell, and fast. Powell was close to Prince Bandar, who now was informed of the decision.
"Mr. President," Rice said, "if you're getting to a place that you really think this might happen, you need to call Colin in and talk to him." Powell had the most difficult job, keeping the diplomatic track alive.
So that Monday, Jan. 13, Powell and Bush met in the Oval Office. The president was sitting in his regular chair in front of the fireplace, and the secretary was in the chair reserved for the visiting leader or most senior U.S. official. For once, neither Cheney nor Rice was hovering.
Bush complimented Powell for his hard work on the diplomatic front. "The inspections are not getting us there," the president said, getting down to business. The U.N. inspectors were just sort of stumbling around, and Hussein was showing no intention of real compliance. "I really think I'm going to have to do this." The president said he had made up his mind on war. The United States should go to war.
"You're sure?" Powell asked.
Yes, said Bush.
"You understand the consequences," Powell said in a half question. For nearly six months, he had been hammering on this theme -- that the United States would be taking down a regime, would have to govern Iraq, and the ripple effect in the Middle East and the world could not be predicted. The run-up to war had sucked nearly all the oxygen from every other issue in foreign relations. War would surely get all the air and attention.
Yeah, I do, the president answered.
"You know that you're going to be owning this place?" Powell said, reminding Bush of what he had told him at a dinner the previous August in which Powell had made the case against military action in Iraq. An invasion would mean assuming the hopes, aspirations and all the troubles of Iraq. Powell wasn't sure whether Bush had fully understood the meaning and consequences of total ownership.
But I think I have to do this, the president said.
Right, Powell said.
I just want to let you know that, Bush said, making it clear this was not a discussion, but the president informing one of his Cabinet members of his decision. The fork in the road had been reached and Bush had chosen war.
As the only person in Bush's inner circle who was seriously and actively pressing the diplomatic track, Powell figured the president wanted to make sure he would support the war. It was in some way a gut check, but Powell didn't feel the president was making a loyalty check. No way on God's earth could he walk away at that point. It would have been an unthinkable act of disloyalty to the president, to Powell's own soldier's code, to the United States military, and mostly to the several hundred thousand who would be going to war.
"Are you with me on this?" the president asked him now. "I think I have to do this. I want you with me."
"I'll do the best I can," Powell answered. "Yes, sir, I will support you. I'm with you, Mr. President."
"Time to put your war uniform on," the president said to the retired general.
In all the discussions, meetings, chats and back-and-forth, in Powell's grueling duels with Rumsfeld and Defense, the president had never once asked Powell, Would you do this? What's your overall advice? The bottom line?
Perhaps the president feared the answer. Perhaps Powell feared giving it. It would, after all, have been an opportunity to say he disagreed. But they had not reached that core question, and Powell would not push. He would not intrude on that most private of presidential space -- where a president made decisions of war and peace -- unless he was invited. He had not been invited.
Bush's meeting with Powell lasted 12 minutes. "It was a very cordial conversation," the president recalled. "It wasn't a long conversation," he noted. "There wasn't much debate: It looks like we're headed to war."
The president stated emphatically that though he had asked Powell to be with him and support him in a war, "I didn't need his permission."
Poland Signs On to the War
Before a meeting with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski the next day, Jan. 14, Bush's frustration again flared in public as he shifted position on the time remaining to Hussein. While eight days earlier he had said publicly that the Iraqi president has "got time," he told reporters that morning, "Time is running out on Saddam Hussein."
Bush knew he had no better friend on the European continent than the popular, second-term Polish president who had agreed to send troops to the war. The Bushes had hosted Kwasniewski and his wife for a rare state dinner the previous July.
"The level of anti-Americanism is extremely high," Kwasniewski said at their private meeting. He had a serious political problem because of his support for Bush.
"Success helps change public opinion," Bush said. "Should we commit troops, we'll feed the people of Iraq." He said it as if that humanitarian gesture might have an impact on public opinion in Poland. He said there was a protocol a country could follow to show the world that it was ridding itself of unconventional weapons -- one that South Africa had followed, visibly and aggressively opening up records and facilities for inspections. Hussein had not.
"In my judgment it's time to move soon, but we won't act precipitously," Bush said, adding, "but time is running out. It's sooner rather than later."
"We will win," the Polish president said, but sounding like Colin Powell, he added plaintively, "but what are the consequences?" After a pause, he continued, "You need wide, broad international support. We are with you, don't worry about it. The risk is the U.N. will collapse. What will replace it?"
These were hard questions that Bush sidestepped, saying only, "We believe that Islam like Christianity can grow in a free and democratic manner."
For Bush, the important things were that Poland would be with him and would supply troops.
Mark Malseed contributed to this report.