This is the second 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.
On Jan. 2, 2002, CIA Director George J. Tenet met with Vice President Cheney -- at Cheney's request -- to brief him on what the agency could do in Iraq.
In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Iraq was much less of a priority than terrorism for Tenet, but not for one of the agency officials who accompanied him to the meeting, the chief of the Iraqi Operations Group, a former covert operations officer who can be identified only by his nickname, Saul.
Within the CIA's Near East Division, which handled some of the hardest, most violent countries, the Iraqi Operations Group was referred to as "The House of Broken Toys." It was largely populated with new, green officers and problem officers, or old boys waiting for retirement. After taking it over in August 2001, Saul had begun a full review of where the CIA stood with Iraq.
At 43, Saul had worked for years in sensitive undercover posts as a case officer and senior operator in CIA stations around the world. Saul was born in a small town in Cuba; his father had been involved in one of the most spectacular CIA failures -- the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in which 1,200 Cuban exiles had been abandoned on the beach by their CIA sponsors. As Saul told associates, "I am here as the result of a failed CIA covert operation."
Now Saul had a blunt message for Cheney about covert operations and Saddam Hussein. He told Cheney that covert action would not remove Hussein. The CIA would not be the solution.
The one thing the dictator's regime was organized for was to stop a coup, he said. Hussein had taken power in a coup. He has put down coups. The son of a bitch knows what a coup is, Saul said. If you are an Iraqi military unit and you have the bullets to launch a coup, you don't have the gas to move your tanks. If you have gas, you don't have bullets. Nobody stays in power long enough to launch a coup.
Only a U.S. military operation and invasion that the CIA could support had a chance of ousting Hussein, Saul told Cheney. The agency had done a lessons-learned study of past Iraq covert operations, he said, and frankly the CIA was tainted.
"We've got a serious credibility problem," he said. The Kurds, the Shiites, former Iraqi military officers and probably most attuned people in Iraq knew the history of the CIA's cutting and running. To reestablish credibility, potential anti-Hussein forces would have to see a determined seriousness on the part of the United States. Preparations for a massive military invasion might send that signal, nothing else.
Saul laid out for Cheney the problems with standing up at the United Nations, talking negotiations and containment, while secretly telling the Saudis and Jordanians the United States was going to remove the regime covertly. They needed a single national policy that everyone supported and explained in the same way.
Another lesson was that the CIA couldn't sustain a covert action program for a lengthy period of time. The regime would find some of the human sources that the agency might recruit and roll them up. So they had to move fast.
Cheney was used to briefers coming to his office with ambitious declarations and promises that their department or agency would deliver. The CIA message, which Saul later delivered to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was the opposite, sobering, highly unusual in its judgment that it really could not do the job.
Saul was discovering that the CIA reporting sources inside Iraq were pretty thin.
What was thin?