"I can count them on one hand," Saul said, pausing for effect, "and I can still pick my nose."
In effectively casting a vote for military action as the only feasible way of removing Hussein, the CIA contributed to the gathering momentum that carried the United States to war in Iraq. It would make other contributions as well -- by successfully establishing a network of informants inside Iraq whose lives were in jeopardy as long as Hussein was in power; and by providing the evidence for what became the Bush administration's main rationale for the war: that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Agents on the Ground in Iraq
With Tenet's approval, Saul, Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin and James L. Pavitt, the deputy director for operations, worked on a new Top Secret intelligence order for regime change in Iraq that Bush signed on Feb. 16, 2002. It directed the CIA to support the U.S. military in overthrowing Hussein and granted authority to support opposition groups and conduct sabotage operations inside Iraq.
The cost was set at $200 million a year for two years. The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees were informed secretly. After some disputes in Congress, the budget was cut to $189 million for the first year.
Saul would be able to run what he called "offensive counterintelligence" operations to prevent Hussein's security apparatus from identifying CIA sources. But most important, the CIA could then work actively with anti-Hussein opposition forces inside Iraq and conduct paramilitary operations inside the country.
In March, Tenet met secretly with two individuals who would be critical to covert action inside Iraq: Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leaders of the two main Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. The two controlled separate areas of a Kurdish region roughly the size of Maine. The areas were effectively autonomous from Hussein's Baghdad regime, but Iraqi military units were stationed just miles from the Kurdish strongholds and Hussein could easily send them to fight and slaughter the Kurds as he had done after the 1991 Persian Gulf War when they had risen up expecting U.S. protection, which was not provided.
Tenet had one message for Barzani and Talabani: The United States was serious, the military and the CIA were coming. It was different this time. The CIA was not going to be alone. The military would attack. Bush meant what he said. It was a new era. Hussein was going down. Of course, Tenet did not know if what he was saying was true, whether war was going to happen. But he had to raise the expectation of the Kurds to win cooperation and engagement. He was about to send some of his paramilitary and case officers into a very dangerous environment.
Tenet had a giant lever: money. He could pay millions, tens of millions of dollars in $100 bills. If Defense Department civilians or officers, or State Department diplomats, paid money to get anyone to act or change policy, it could be illegal bribery. The CIA was the one part of the U.S. government that was authorized to pay off people.
Tenet had told Bush that some money was going to be paid on speculation in order to establish relationships and demonstrate seriousness. And that not all of it might look as if it had been well spent. It was like chum, small pieces of fish scattered on the water to attract the big ones. In intelligence, you often had to chum far and wide. It was one more thing the president and Tenet bonded over. Bush, one of the biggest political fundraisers of all time, and Tenet, the U.S. government covert moneyman, knew the restorative power of cash.
Saul knew solid on-the-ground intelligence and effective lethal operations could not be done from the sidelines. Though the CIA had a massive effort going on all of Iraq's borders, the agency needed to be inside. Saul sent out messages seeking volunteers. At least one entire CIA station from the chief on down volunteered. Saul drafted Tim, a former Navy SEAL fluent in Arabic who was a covert operations officer at a CIA station in the region, to lead one of two paramilitary teams he was sending into northern Iraq.
Saul issued Tim oral instructions: I want Hussein's military penetrated. I want the intel service penetrated. I want the security apparatus penetrated. I want tribal networks inside Iraq who will do things for us -- paramilitary, sabotage, ground intelligence. Work the relationship with the Kurds. See if it is feasible to train and arm them so they can tie down Hussein's forces in the north.
In July, Tim and a team of CIA operatives made the 10-hour overland drive from Turkey into Iraq in a convoy of Land Cruisers, Jeeps and a truck to set up base in Sulaymaniyah in the mountainous Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq. In October, they returned to the same area carrying tens of millions of dollars in $100 bills stored in heavy cardboard boxes. They set up base in a lime-green building that they christened "Pistachio."
Find the weak points in the regime and push, Saul instructed. War was coming.
It was not long before they began to recruit some key sources. One was an officer in Hussein's Special Security Organization (SSO), who produced a CD-ROM with 6,000 SSO personnel files -- names, backgrounds, assignments and many personnel photos.