washingtonpost.com
U.S. Aimed for Hussein as War Began
CIA Informants Told of His Suspected Whereabouts

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2004

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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?

"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.

"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?

"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.

"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."

"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."

Powell noted silently that things didn't really get decided until the president had met with Cheney alone.

Myers went to the secure phone to inform Franks.

Rumsfeld emerged from the Oval Office and saw Gerson. "I was just butchering your speech," he said.

The president called out, "Gerson, come on in." Hughes and Bartlett were standing there.

"We're going after them," Bush explained.

"I don't understand," Gerson said.

"The intelligence is good," Bush replied, explaining that it showed they had a shot at Hussein and his sons. "Let's hope we're right," he added, choking up.

Rumsfeld's "butchery" of the speech was simple. He wanted the president to say that this was the "early stages" of military operations, and again in the second paragraph refer to the "opening stages" of war.

"I want to see you over in the residence when you're ready," Bush said to Gerson and Hughes, directing that the changes be made.

The two went up to Gerson's second-floor office and made the changes in a few minutes. Gerson was glad they were going to restore a line that had been cut from Monday's ultimatum speech. Referring to Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction, the line now read: "We meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities." Gerson thought it was the most vivid way to put it. The implication of avoiding another 9/11 would be clear.

Rumsfeld read the speech word for word to Franks over a secure phone to make sure he had no objections or suggestions. He had none.

Rice placed a quick call at 7:30 p.m. to Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about another matter. He said he already knew about the war and wished it would be fast and "bloodless."

She woke up David Manning, the British national security adviser.

"David, there's a little change in plans. And I'm sorry to say this, but I think you better wake the prime minister and tell him."

Yes, the president said, he was ready on both counts. Though he had asked all in the war cabinet, including Card, if they would do this, and each had said yes, he asked again. "You would do this?"

"Yes," Card said, "this is the right thing to do. Absolutely. Take this chance."

How long have the F-117s been up? the president asked. When do they get there?

The next report said they were in Iraqi airspace. There would be no more preliminary reports because they would be on radio silence over Iraq.

Hughes, Bartlett and Gerson went over to the residence. Unsure whether the president wanted to see them or just receive the speech, they asked the usher to check. If Bush was having dinner, they did not want to interrupt. The usher soon came back and escorted them up to the Treaty Room, Bush's private office. Gerson thought Bush was subdued and a little pale. For the first time he looked to Gerson a little bit burdened by all of this. The president took the speech and began to read it aloud: "My fellow citizens, at this hour . . .

"American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

He read through the 10 paragraphs and said it was fine. He had no changes. He walked them to the elevator.

Quietly, as if to reassure himself, Bush said again, "The intelligence is good."

"Condi," Bandar said, "we have to stop meeting like this -- this hour. People will talk."

Normally any meeting after 6:30 p.m. was a kind of code word, meaning that Bandar would be seeing the president. Bandar had booked an entire small Arabian restaurant in Georgetown that night to dine with his wife, family and some friends. He told his wife to go ahead. He arrived in the West Wing lobby and noticed a photographer. Odd. When he was finally ushered in at 8:28 p.m., Rice stepped to her outer office to greet him. Flash!

Bandar jumped, saying, "I hope he works for you."

"Yes, yes, don't worry."

The photographer snapped again as they were about to sit down, and a third time after they sat.

"The president has " Rice began.

" . . . asked me to tell you," Bandar interrupted, completing her sentence, "that we are going to war."

It was obvious -- the ultimatum's expiration and the photographer. "I've been meeting you in this office for two years and I've never had a photographer in here. I'm not retiring to take goodbye photos. You're not retiring."

About 9 p.m., hell will break loose, Rice said. "And your friend, the president, insisted that you be informed immediately."

"Where is the president now?" Bandar asked.

"He is having dinner right now with the first lady and then he decided he wants to be alone."

"Tell him he will be in our prayers and hearts," Bandar said. "God help us all."

Rice's phone rang at 8:29 p.m.

"Yes, yes, Mr. President," she said. "No, I told him. . . . He's here. . . . Yes, he is with me. I told him. Well, he said you're in his prayers."

"He said thank you," Rice reported after hanging up. "Just keep praying."

Bandar excused himself and left. The walk from the West Wing to his car outside seemed 1,000 miles. Cool air hit his face and he suddenly began to sweat, then there was a little shiver.

He had arranged a code to alert Crown Prince Abdullah if he learned early -- a reference to the Roda, an oasis outside Riyadh.

"Tonight the forecast is there will be heavy rain in the Roda," Bandar said from his car phone to Saudi Arabia.

"Oh, I see," the crown prince said. "I see. Are you sure?"

"I am very sure," he replied, adding that the Americans had great capabilities, satellites and so forth, to predict the weather.

"Tell me again."

Bandar repeated.

The crown prince took a deep breath. "May God decide what is good for all of us." Then he asked loudly, "Do you know how soon the storm is going to hit?"

"Sir," Bandar said, potentially blowing operational security if any foreign embassy or anyone else with the capability was listening in, "I don't know, but watch TV."

Once more, he called Rice. No news.

He tried to sleep or read or find something to do and couldn't so he called Rice again.

"Mr. President, we've just got a report from the person on the ground. A convoy has pulled into the complex."

"Is that convoy full of kids?" Bush asked. It hit him that there was no turning back now. The bombers were going in first, followed immediately by 36 cruise missiles. They had doubled the Tomahawk attack package. The Tomahawk cruise missiles, which had been launched to the Dora Farm target more than an hour earlier, had no self-destruct mechanism so they were going in no matter what.

"No," Rice replied, "he thinks that it looks like the kind of convoy that would bring Saddam Hussein."

About an hour later, the president came down to the Oval Office and did a read-through, then went to his study off the Oval Office.

Normally at the end of the day press secretary Ari Fleischer would put a "lid" on, telling the White House reporters that there would be no more news that night. But Fleischer knew that the extraordinarily long Oval Office meeting meant something, especially with all the running around by the principals and the presence of even a few unfamiliar faces. So he was going to be careful. Finally, Card took Fleischer into his corner office.

It's going to start tonight, Card said. These are the early stages. We have a target of opportunity and are sending a stealth fighter to go after it.

"Are we sending anything else in?"

"I told you everything you need to know," Card replied. The attack would be south of Baghdad. Iraqi antiaircraft batteries would soon be going off.

Rice, Card, Bartlett and Fleischer gathered around the TV in Rice's office. At 9:30 p.m. reports came that air raid sirens had gone off in Baghdad. Antiaircraft fire soon followed.

"Go out," Rice told Fleischer.

Fleischer was at the podium at 9:45: "The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun. The president will address the nation at 10:15."

Myers reported to Hadley that the F-117s had successfully dropped their bombs, but the pilots were not yet out of hostile territory. Hadley went to the study off the Oval Office where the president was getting his makeup, and relayed the report to Bush and Rice.

"Let's pray for the pilots," Bush said.

"Our forces will be coming home as soon as their work is done," he said. "This will not be a campaign of half-measures."

When he was done, he asked Rice how the speech had gone. One of the better ones, she told him.

Hadley called Myers, who reported about 11 p.m. that the pilots were out of hostile airspace and on the approach to land. Rice called the president.

"The pilots are out of harm's way," she said.

"Well, thank God for that."

A few minutes before midnight in Washington (8 a.m. Iraqi time), Tim sent a report saying that the principal ROCKSTAR reported that Hussein and his sons were at Dora Farm when the bombs and missiles hit, but he did not know their status. Tim did not want to report again until he was pretty sure they had gotten Hussein.

Before dawn in Washington (about noon in Iraq), he sent another cable. Again he had to report what the ROCKSTARS said, but he was uncertain because he was just getting snatches from ROCKSTARS fleeing the scene. Rokan, their source, had been killed by a cruise missile. One of Hussein's sons, it was unclear which, had come out shouting, "We've been betrayed" and shot another of the ROCKSTARS in the knee. The other son had emerged from the rubble bloody and disoriented but it wasn't clear whether it was his blood or someone else's. Hussein had been injured, according to a ROCKSTAR witness, and had to be dug out of the rubble. He was blue. He was gray. He was being given oxygen. He had been put on a stretcher and loaded into the back of an ambulance, which then did not move for half an hour before departing the farm across a bridge.

About 4:30 a.m. Tenet called the Situation Room and told the duty officer, "Tell the president we got the son of a bitch."

They didn't wake the president. And by the time Bush arrived at the Oval Office about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, March 20, they weren't so sure. It looked as though Hussein may have survived.

Tim eventually tracked down some of the ROCKSTAR agents who had reported that night. Two said their wives had been captured by Hussein's agents and had their fingernails pulled out. Another maintained that his house had been bulldozed. There was some evidence to support these claims, but Tim was unsure.

Soon Tim was reassigned to CIA headquarters to work undercover on other issues. Saul and other superiors asked him and the team members to put down the sequence of events of the day and night of March 19 to 20, 2003. They wanted a very briefable, immaculate package. The more Tim searched his memory and the few documents, he realized that much was cloudy. Everyone had been stressed. The ROCKSTARS on the ground had not wanted to disappoint, and had obviously been worried about being captured or killed.

Tim made a series of efforts to write down in a meaningful way what had happened. He tried a version. Did he have 40 percent? Or 62 percent? Or 83 percent? he wondered. What percentage of the truth was available? What had slipped away? What had been untrue? He tried several more times. It wasn't black or white, and it certainly wasn't a straight line. Was he getting closer or further from the truth?

He never produced a definitive version. The biggest unanswered question was whether Saddam Hussein and his entourage had really been there that night.

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company