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U.S. Aimed for Hussein as War Began

Card checked with the Situation Room.

"The Poles are in," he reported to the president. "They've got the platform." A Polish special forces team had gone in early and captured one of the key targets -- an oil platform in the south.

Bush spoke briefly with the Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

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)

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"The Aussies are in," Card reported. An Australian commando team had moved into the west.

3:15 p.m.

Tenet, CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin, Saul and several other CIA operatives had raced over to the Pentagon with Tim's intelligence report and satellite photos to meet with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had been following the ROCKSTAR intelligence and thought it merited the attention of the president. The odds were that the group was not being duplicitous; people were putting their lives at risk. But like most intelligence, it was imperfect. Rumsfeld talked with Franks, who thought Dora Farm was a good target, and the secretary asked that he make sure they were ready to attack it.

Rumsfeld called Card. "We've got some developments, and I want to come over and talk about them," he told Card, who passed on the request to the president.

Tenet, meanwhile, phoned Stephen J. Hadley, the deputy national security adviser. "I'm coming," Tenet said cryptically, "I'm not going to say a word on the phone. I want to do it with Don in the presence of the president. Nothing before that."

Rumsfeld, McLaughlin, Tenet, Saul and two other CIA men soon arrived in the Oval Office and went into the president's dining room.

"We've got two guys close to Saddam," Tenet said. He quickly summarized about the security guy, Rokan, at Dora, and then the other ROCKSTAR who had gone down to help with communications. Tenet produced satellite photos that showed the location of the farm near Baghdad at a bend in the Tigris River. There were several houses on the farm. "Saddam and the two boys have been here, and might come back if they're still not there." The CIA was in direct communication with both sources.

Bush questioned them about the sources. Who were they? How good were they?

Saul explained that a key to the ROCKSTAR network was the Special Security Organization officer in communications who worked with the two eyes-on sources at Dora. The SSO man's contacts and recruits into the network had turned out to be very good. In terms of Iraqi sources we are running, Saul told the president, we judge him to be one of the better, more reliable sources. "This is really good," the president said. "This sounds good."

"Well," Saul said, "we'll never get 100 percent confidence but the organization has proven reliable." At this point, they had one source, Rokan, on the specifics of Hussein's being there or about to return. "Right now," Saul said, "it's about 75 percent certain."

A decapitation strike on the top regime leaders now appeared possible. They contemplated the impact of taking out Hussein and his sons. Who would make the decisions inside Iraq? Everyone was so used to directions from the highest level. The best-case scenario was that it might even break the regime, make war unnecessary. That was unlikely but possible.

What kind of weapons would you use? the president asked.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had joined the group, said Tomahawk cruise missiles, and he proposed a strike package of 15 to 17.

Bush was skeptical. He asked, Who is in which building? Where would Hussein stay? Do the sons have kids? Where is the wife? Is Hussein with his wife? Are we sure it is not just where he put all of the kids to stay?

Waiting for Hussein

In northern Iraq, Tim threw a blazer over his long underwear and put on his muddy boots. It was the ritual of respectability with the Kurds. No matter how grubby, the brothers up at Jonestown would be in coat and tie. He hopped in his Cherokee and drove himself up the treacherous three miles from Pistachio to Jonestown to be on the scene where the ROCKSTAR reports were coming in. The atmosphere at Jonestown was frantic with the brothers screaming, "Don't hang up! Stay on, stay on the phone! Don't hang up!" Click. Tim decided the best thing to do was scream back at them.

"The fate of your nation hangs on you," Tim yelled, "and I'm going to pull it all away from you, and if you let me down now, you're not going to get the seat at the table in a new Iraqi government."

The principal source phoned in a report cobbled together from what his two subsources at Dora Farm were telling him: Hussein's sons were at the farm for sure, and Hussein was expected back about 2:30 a.m. or 3 a.m. Iraqi time. The sources on the scene also reported details about the houses. Additionally there was a manzul on the compound, the report said. Manzul could be translated as "place of refuge" or "bunker." Tim chose bunker. The report provided some details about the bunker -- distances from the main houses, and its thickness in so many meters of concrete under so many meters of earth. Tim frantically took this and sent back to CIA headquarters a flash message summarizing the information.

The president had more questions. "Is it going to disrupt Tommy's plan?" he asked. They had spent more than a year on that plan. What would be the impact? Would it blow the whole element of surprise? The Special Operations forces that had gone in already were supposed to be covert. Would this expose them? "Go ask Tommy," he directed Rumsfeld.

Myers eventually reached Franks.

"What do you think about taking a shot at this Dora Farm target?" Myers asked.

Franks had been watching the time-sensitive targets carefully and he had known the night before that the CIA had been getting closer to Hussein, perhaps at Dora Farm. It looked like a target for a Tomahawk cruise missile, and Franks had ordered the Navy to program some missiles on the target. But it was still during the 48-hour ultimatum period the president had given Hussein and his sons to leave. Franks felt pretty strongly, and had counseled Rumsfeld, that they not take a shot during that period. It was a kind of grace period.

Can you do it in two hours? Myers asked next.

Franks said they could. The Tomahawks were ready to go.

Sometime After 4 p.m.

The latest ROCKSTAR report arrived in the Situation Room and was taken immediately to the Oval Office.

"They say they're with him right now! Both of the sons are there," Tenet said. Their wives were there. The families were there also. Hussein was expected back at 2:30 to 3 a.m. Iraq time -- in less than two hours. There was a bunker and one of the ROCKSTARS had paced off where it was, had gone inside and taken rough measurements.

Hadley asked Saul, "Can you show me where the bunker is?" Saul wasn't sure, but they took the overhead photos and Hadley tried to draw a sketch. McLaughlin was soon doing an improved amateur engineer drawing.

Powell was the only principal missing, and about 5:15 p.m. the president told Rice, "You better call Colin."

"Colin, get to the White House!" she said, reaching Powell at the State Department. She was abrupt and offered no explanation. When Powell arrived in minutes, they summarized for him. "If we've got a chance to decapitate them, it's worth it," he finally said.

Rumsfeld strongly recommended a strike, and Cheney agreed, though he seemed to be holding back.

Bush filled the time with questions, at one point asking: Were they really sure what they were looking at was what they thought they were looking at?

"It's as good as it gets," Tenet said. "I can't give you 100 percent assurance, but this is as good as it gets."

Bush was still worrying about the women and children. This could be a kind of baby milk factory, he said, recalling an incident from the 1991 Persian Gulf War when the Iraqis had claimed a suspected biological weapons plant that was bombed was really for the production of baby milk. "They would bring out dead women and children," Bush said, "and the first pictures would be of civilian casualties on a massive scale of some kind."

Could Iraq use this as a public relations exercise? he asked. It could engender sympathy for Hussein. Dead babies, children and women would be a nightmare. That sure would get things off on the wrong foot.

Rumsfeld and Myers said it probably didn't matter what they hit in the first strike, because the Iraqi propaganda machine was going to say that the United States killed a number of women and children anyway. And if necessary the Iraqis would execute women and children and say the United States did it.

That was indeed the downside. But the others -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Tenet, even Powell -- seemed taken with the upside, a shortcut to victory.

Myers raised a serious problem. If there were a bunker at the Dora compound as they now suspected, the cruise missiles would not penetrate. They would need the bunker-busting 2,000-pound bombs to get that deep. Myers was sent off to talk to Franks.

For a moment, the group weighed the downsides. They had promised to defend Israel, and the full defense of Israel was not ready. What were the other consequences? Suppose the Iraqis used a strike as a pretext to set the oil wells ablaze? Suppose they fired Scud missiles into Israel or Saudi Arabia? The consequences of an early attack were immense. The plan called for the air campaign to begin in two days.

Bush went around the room and asked: Would you do it?

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