This is the last 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 the day President Bush led the United States to war in Iraq, he met with the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room, linked by secure video with Gen. Tommy R. Franks and nine of his senior commanders. It was the morning of Wednesday, March 19, 2003.
President Bush meets with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, left, and Vice President Cheney, center, outside the Oval Office shortly after authorizing Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bush said the day was emotional for him. "I prayed that our troops be safe, be protected by the Almighty, that there be minimal loss of life," he said.
(Eric Draper -- AP)
Franks, who was at Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia, explained that each commander would brief the president.
"Do you have everything you need?" Bush asked Lt. Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, the Air Force commander who was running the air operations out of Saudi Arabia. "Can you win?"
"My command and control is all up," Moseley said. "I've received and distributed the rules of engagement. I have no issues. I am in place and ready." He was careful not to promise outright victory. "I have everything we need to win."
"I'm ready," said Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the Army ground commander. "We are moving into forward attack positions. Our logistics are in place. We have everything we need to win."
"Green across the board," said Vice Admiral Timothy J. Keating.
Bush repeated his questions to each of the other commanders. The answers were all affirmative, and got shorter each time.
"The rules of engagement and command and control are in place," Franks said. "The force is ready to go, Mr. President."
"For the peace of the world and the benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people," Bush said, "I hereby give the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom. May God bless the troops."
"May God bless America," Franks replied.
"We're ready to go," the president said. "Let's win it." He raised his hand in a salute to his commanders, and then abruptly stood and turned before the others could jump up. Tears welled up in his eyes, and in the eyes of some of the others as Bush left the room. When he reached the Oval Office, he went outside for a walk.
"It was emotional for me," Bush recalled in an interview last December. "I prayed as I walked around the circle. I prayed that our troops be safe, be protected by the Almighty, that there be minimal loss of life." He prayed for all who were to go into harm's way for the country.
"Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will. . . . I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness."
After his walk, the president made a series of secure phone calls to leaders of coalition countries saying, in essence, "We're launching!"
At this point, the war plan called for 48 hours of stealth operations, with the first Special Operations teams crossing the border from Jordan into western Iraq to stop any Scud missiles at 9 a.m. Eastern Time, 5 p.m. in Iraq. At the end of that period, at 1 p.m. Washington time on Friday, March 21, nine hours of "shock and awe" bombing and missile strikes would begin, with the major ground incursion scheduled for that night. The president would address the nation sometime Friday to announce that military action had begun.
But there had been a new development that threw some of those plans into doubt -- the opportunity, apparently, to kill Saddam Hussein before the war really even started.
Bush had learned about it the day before, when CIA Director George J. Tenet had come to the White House. He had been keeping Bush updated on the ROCKSTARS, the network of informants inside Iraq that the CIA had developed and cultivated since the previous fall, and how they were getting the CIA closer to locating Hussein. Now, he said, several ROCKSTARS were reporting with increasing detail and granularity the possibility that Hussein or his family was -- or soon would be -- at Dora Farm, a complex southeast of Baghdad on the bank of the Tigris River.
At Bush's intelligence briefing that morning, Tenet said that he might have something really good later on, but that he wasn't going to say anything more. He didn't want to raise expectations on the day the president was going to order the war to begin. It was unusual for Tenet to be so vague, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. noticed that Tenet was excited, almost effervescent. Tenet was never undermotivated but this was unusual, Card thought. Very unusual.
10:15 a.m. (6: 15 p.m. in Iraq)
In the mountainous Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq, a man named Tim, the head of a CIA paramilitary team, had set up a communications center about 10,000 feet up -- three 1970s trailers and some old Quonset huts wrapped in plastic and tied with ropes. They christened it Jonestown. Tim had 87 ROCKSTARS out there, reporting on the Thuraya satellite phones he had given them, a high-tech 7-by-7-foot screen displaying the exact location of each call coming from inside Iraq. Their calls were taken by two Kurdish brothers recruited by Tim, members of a repressed religious group who had wanted to help the CIA and the United States.
Tim had three of his case officers and two Special Forces guys up there for security, basically living at Jonestown. They listened to the reports coming in Arabic and then relayed them on a secure radio down the mountain to Tim's base camp, where his team was set up in a building painted lime green and known as "Pistachio." They tried to turn the phoned-in reports into intelligence reports as fast as possible for transmission to CIA headquarters in Virginia. Tim always wanted more detail -- clarification, verification.
"Pistachio, Pistachio, this is Jonestown," came yet another call from up the mountain. Jonestown had just received a report from a ROCKSTAR -- a member of Hussein's security force, the SSO, who ran part of the communications links Hussein used as he moved between his palaces and other locations. The source said he had just heard from another ROCKSTAR who had gone to Dora Farm to help with communications and had noticed a significant security detail. They were stocking food and supplies. It looked like a family gathering.
Tim relayed this to Saul, head of the Iraq operations group, at CIA headquarters, who reviewed the latest overhead imagery of Baghdad. Lo and behold, under the palm trees at Dora Farm were 36 frickin' security vehicles! It was a huge number, not for one or two people. The farm was used by Hussein's wife Sajida and Saul knew that Hussein had used it.
About 10:30 a.m., Bush met with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
"We're on the verge of war," the president said, "and since New York City is a potential top target, it's important we visit." He praised the city's efforts at preparedness, but advised the mayor to focus on the main potential targets of the terrorists. "Keep your eye on tunnels, bridges and the Jewish community."
At 11:30 a.m. Washington time, a second Special Forces commando team launched into Iraq, this one from Saudi Arabia.
The president met with top advisers on energy matters in the Roosevelt Room. The meeting included Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Card. The questions focused on the international flow of oil. What additional disruptions could take place in the marketplace? Venezuela, which was in political turmoil, had already drastically cut back production. Should the president use the strategic petroleum reserve?
Robert McNally, an energy expert on the White House staff, reported that crude oil prices had fallen from $37 to $31 a barrel. That was good news. A rapid increase in price would raise costs for businesses and consumers across the board.
The Saudis had pledged to stabilize the crude oil market by increasing output and putting crude into tankers that were pre-positioned in the Caribbean or heading there.
When they looked at oil worldwide, McNally said, the crude oversupply was 1.5 million to 1.9 million barrels a day. That dramatic oversupply was driving down the price.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the Saudis would cover for any loss of oil from Iraq by upping production to 10.5 million barrels a day for 30 days -- an extraordinary pledge. In December, the Saudis had been supplying only 8 million barrels a day, and in February fewer than 9 million.
Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans said that about two-thirds of the Iraqi oil fields were located close together, and it was not clear from intelligence how many had been wired to explode.
The president, displaying technical knowledge gained from his earlier career in the oil business, said that if explosives were rigged on the top of the well, the fire would be relatively easy to extinguish, but if an explosion were set off deep down in the pipes it could take forever to put out those fires. "If they blow up their oil fields, it will be more than one month. If they really blow them, it will be years."
Sometime after 12:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Iraq), Tim received a report that Rokan, a ROCKSTAR source who ran security at Dora Farm, had seen Hussein, who had left the farm about eight hours earlier to attend meetings but would be back to sleep at Dora along with his sons Qusay and Uday. It was 100 percent sure that Hussein "must" be returning. Tim knew that in the context the "must" meant maybe, but he had to report what he had been told.
At 1 p.m., at least 31 teams of Special Operations forces entered Iraq in the west and north.
"They're on the ground; they're in," Card said in an aside to the president.
It was almost too quiet. Bush and Card were eager to see whether al-Jazeera or CNN or any news organization had picked up some movement.
At 1:45 p.m., the president spoke with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar for 20 minutes.
"We have to kind of speak in code," Bush said on the secure line. "Things are changing. You may not see much but it's a different pace."
Just after 2 p.m., there was still no leak.