Around 4 p.m. yesterday, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet offered President Bush the prospect -- improbable to the point of fantasy, yet somehow at hand -- that the war against Iraq might be transformed with its opening shots. The CIA, Tenet said, believed it had a fix on President Saddam Hussein.
Hussein and others in "the most senior levels of the Iraqi leadership," ordinarily among the most elusive of men, had fallen under U.S. surveillance. The unforeseen glimpse of the enemy was not expected to last, and so presented what one administration official called "a target of opportunity" that might not reappear. Not only did the agency know where Hussein was, according to the official's description of Tenet's briefing, but it believed with "a high probability" that he would remain there for hours to come -- cloistered with his war council in an isolated private residence in southern Baghdad.
The first Tomahawk cruise missile to be fired into Iraq is launched from the USS Bunker Hill in the Persian Gulf. Operations officers reprogrammed the missiles on the fly with digital target data transmitted from CIA headquarters at Langley. If the CIA had come across yesterday's intelligence windfall in 1991, the U.S. military could not have struck the Bahgdad residence fast enough.
(Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Richard Moore -- U.s. Navy)
Bush listened calmly -- as his aides portrayed the scene -- while Tenet described the sources and limits of his information, the likelihood that it was true and the length of time Hussein could be expected to spend at the site. The Iraqi president, a man of many palaces, avoids them at moments of maximum risk. He is said by analysts to be a kind of refugee in the country he rules, moving constantly and without predictable pattern. There was no guarantee, Tenet said, that Hussein's whereabouts would be pinpointed again.
First reports in wartime seldom stand for long, and there is little reason to suppose that what the president heard yesterday, or what his aides portrayed of his response, will be the final word. What is known of this episode is akin to what the Army calls the "hot wash" -- an immediate after-action report that remains to be verified and placed in context. But initial appearances suggest that Hussein survived, and that the opening salvo foretells an extraordinary war.
Bush ventured little militarily -- expending about 40 cruise missiles and placing two pilots and their aircraft in harm's way. He had much to gain. But as an early portent, and in the political psychology of war, shooting at and missing an oft-missed foe carries other costs that are hard to measure.
In the first hours after hearing Tenet's report, Bush and his senior national security advisers tore up the carefully orchestrated schedule of violence that the U.S. Central Command had honed for months. Those present in the Oval Office, officials said, included Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When Bush signed the launch order at 6:30 p.m., it included a hasty improvisation. The first shots would strike through the roof and walls of an anonymous Baghdad home, and deep beneath it, in hopes of decapitating the Iraqi government in a single blow.
"If you're going to take a shot like this, you're going to take a shot at the top guy," said a government official with knowledge of the sequence of events. "It was a fairly singular strike."
Aboard eight Navy warships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, operations officers reprogrammed Tomahawk cruise missiles on the fly with digital target data transmitted from CIA headquarters at Langley. From Qatar's Al Udeid air base, a pair of pilots boarded a pair of stealthy F-117A strike fighters, each of them equipped with a pair of 2,000-pound bombs. The pilots pulled back on their flight controls with only snap orders to guide them, in place of the usually exhaustive pre-flight briefing.
The aircraft and missiles each carried satellite-guided warheads. The bombs aboard the F-117s were Joint Direct Attack Munitions, designed to penetrate layers of stone and steel.
Three hours after Bush gave the order, at 5:33 a.m. local time, a series of closely spaced explosions rocked southern Baghdad, witnesses in the city said. Iraqi television, competing for air time with the newly American-flagged frequencies of Iraqi radio, reported swiftly that Hussein was alive and well and would address the nation shortly.
Then another three hours passed, and Hussein made what was billed as a live appearance at 12:30 a.m., Eastern time, today.
In their first urgent review, U.S. analysts were said to be uncertain whether the man on the screen was in fact Hussein, or was speaking live. One official said the case against the broadcast's authenticity included that Hussein has several body doubles and his glasses looked nothing like the ones he normally wears. Though Hussein mentioned yesterday's date in the broadcast, that corresponded to Bush's ultimatum for war and could have been recorded. He said nothing specific about the bomb and missile strike. On the other hand, an official said, "the rhetoric is not unlike rhetoric he has used in other speeches."
U.S. officials cautioned that it would be some time before intelligence could assess with certainty what the U.S. strike had hit, and who had been there. But it was already clear, as it never had been entirely in 1991, that the man in the White House intended to find the Iraqi president and kill him.
The 1991 Persian Gulf War included hundreds of strikes at "leadership targets," but President George H.W. Bush and his advisers did not acknowledge they were aimed at Hussein in particular. After the war, evidence emerged that the U.S.-led air campaign had tried and failed on dozens of occasions to destroy him in his bunker.
But those attacks were not the first of the war, which of necessity targeted Iraqi air defenses and the command and control of Iraqi fighting forces. If the CIA had come across yesterday's intelligence windfall in 1991, the U.S. military could not have struck the Bahgdad residence fast enough.
Tomahawk cruise missiles could have spun up their jet engines, and the gyroscopes to guide their flight, but there would have been no way to enter precision-targeting data in minutes or even hours. At the time, the missiles required three-dimensional terrain maps that took days to construct.
In the decade since the Gulf War, the Tomahawk's guidance system has been upgraded to follow Global Positioning System satellites instead. The Navy can download new digital coordinates direct from the intelligence directorate of U.S. Central Command. "Actionable intelligence," the bane of a high-technology military faced with an elusive low-tech foe, requires far less lead time in the present war.
Whatever the result of yesterday's strike, officials said, there will be more rapid re-targetings and more unexpected opportunities before the war is over.
Staff writers Walter Pincus, Vernon Loeb, Mike Allen and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.