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U.S. Aimed for Hussein as War Began

"I would do it, Mr. President," Card said. It was too good a chance not to take. Rumsfeld, too, was strongly in favor.

Powell thought it was a hell of a lot of very specific information that seemed not bad, though it was a little curious that the CIA sources on the other end of the satellite phones could have acquired so much.

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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"If we've got a chance to decapitate them, it's worth it," Powell recommended again.

Rice and Hadley had some more questions about the sources, but both favored an attack.

Myers reached Franks on a secure phone. Could he load up a stealth fighter with a pair of EGBU-27 bombs, the bunker-busters, for the attack?

"Absolutely not," Franks said. "We don't have the F-117 ready to go." The F-117A Nighthawk, the stealth single-seat fighter jet, typically carried two of the bombs when fully loaded.

Franks checked further. The Air Force had been following the intelligence and the night before had readied one F-117. The Air Force squadron in Qatar had received word that day that the bombs could be dropped in pairs safely, though it had never been tried before.

Franks asked what the probability was of a single F-117 getting through and delivering its pair of bombs. Though stealthy and radar-evading, the F-117 would have to go in before the suppression of Iraqi air defense, weak as that was. The plane would be going in cold. The answer came back that the Air Force could only say there was a 50 percent chance of success.

Prepare two bombers, Franks ordered, figuring that would improve the chances.

In Qatar, the Air Force squadron was able to load a second F-117.

Franks sent word to the Oval Office that it would be possible, but that he needed a final decision to go by about 7:15 p.m. in order to get the F-117s in and out of Iraqi airspace well before dawn.

Rumsfeld, Myers and CIA men were running in and out of the Oval Office to find secure phones at West Wing locations. Card was concerned that the window of opportunity was closing. Did they really understand the intelligence? Was it necessary to change the weapons? Myers was trying to find out how long it would take the F-117s to be loaded, take off, then fly from Doha to Baghdad and back. How many tankers do they have to have to refuel the planes?

Another question arose. If it was approved, should the president go on television that night and make his speech announcing the beginning of the war -- a speech now scheduled for Friday?

"Look, this is an ongoing operation," Cheney said. "We didn't announce that the Special Forces were going in. We didn't announce the Poles were taking over the platform. We didn't announce the Australians were heading toward the dam. We don't have to announce it yet. You don't announce it until you are ready to announce it."

Rumsfeld seemed to half agree. "If someone should go, maybe it should be me," he said, but he then added, indicating Bush, "Or maybe it could be you."

Powell raised the CNN effect. The attack would be seen instantly. Reporters stationed at the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad were close enough possibly to see it or hear it. Dozens of cruise missiles and bunker-buster bombs. The media were spring-loaded to proclaim, "It started! It started!" Antiaircraft fire and tracers would be flying all around. The war was going to begin with this event.

"If lives are in jeopardy," the president said, "I've got to go announce it."

Cheney reminded him that lives were already in danger and that there had been no announcement.

Should he wait until the next morning? the president asked. That would give Franks an additional 12 hours before any announcement.

Bush called in his two main communications advisers, Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett, to the Oval Office. He told Saul to sum up the intelligence.

Then, the president said he was probably going to order the attack. "How do we do this?" he asked Hughes and Bartlett. "Do I go on television?" Should he inform the public before, during or after? Should the secretary of defense do it? Everyone turned to Hughes. They knew how much Bush relied on her.

"No, you need to do it, Mr. President," she said. "The American people shouldn't hear it from the press; they shouldn't hear it from somebody else. They should hear it from you. And you should tell them what and why." If they hit civilians or women and children, the president had to be ahead of the curve. She added her trademark observation, "We can't sort of be catching up."

Bartlett agreed with Hughes, but Cheney still had reservations. What would this mean for Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia? Do we have our defenses ready for Israel? Tommy's plan has a defense, but the plan wasn't fully implemented yet.

Powell could not understand that they would start a war and not get out front with a presidential announcement.

"I promised people I'd let them know when the war begins," Bush said. "And if lives -- the war is beginning tonight, lives will be in jeopardy, I have to tell the American people that I've committed American forces to war."

Cheney didn't seem happy.

"They have to hear it from me," Bush said. "I'm doing it." This would be starting the war, he said. "Let's not kid ourselves."

6 p.m.

Card called Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. "Is it ready?" Card asked. There was only one speech left to give.

"In about five minutes I can have it ready," Gerson said.

"I want you to meet me outside the Oval Office at 6:30 with several copies of the speech."

Gerson went down to the Oval Office and sat in one of the two chairs outside.

Card soon emerged. "We'll be with you soon enough. Just wait," he told him. Card took the copies of the speech, leaving Gerson to cool his heels. Obviously something was up, but Gerson had no idea what. Tenet and his people were running in and out making secure calls.

Inside the Oval Office, the president went around the room again, asking if all the principals agreed, almost pushing each to the wall. They did.

Bush turned to Saul. "Well, what do you think?"

Saul's head was spinning. He had never been involved in a discussion like this, let alone been asked his opinion. He was worried about the pilots of the F-117s. His intelligence was now going to put American lives directly at risk. The planes would be going in with no electronic countermeasures, no fighter escort, no advance suppression of Iraqi air defense. "I have to apologize that we have to present you with this very tough decision," Saul said to the president. "I really feel sorry for you having to make it."

"Don't," Bush said. "That's what I do. I'll make the decision."

"Well, sir," Saul said, "then I would say launch."

The president kicked everyone out of the Oval Office but Cheney.

What do you think, Dick?

"This is the best intelligence we've had yet on where Saddam's located," Cheney replied. "If we get him, it may save a lot of lives and shorten the war. And even if we don't, we're going to rattle his cage pretty seriously, and maybe disrupt the chain of command. That's well worth the effort in and of itself." Now he was unequivocal. "I think we ought to go for it."

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