CIA Had Fix on Hussein: Intelligence Revealed 'Target of Opportunity'

Barton Gellman and Dana Priest, The Washington Post, March 20, 2003 

Shortly before 4 p.m. yesterday, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet offered President Bush the prospect -- improbable to the point of fantasy, yet suddenly 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 intelligence was unforeseen and perishable, presenting what one administration official called "a target of opportunity" that might not come again. Not only did the agency know where Hussein was, Tenet said, but it also believed with "a high probability" that it knew where he would be for hours to come -- cloistered with advisers in a known private residence in southern Baghdad.

Bush listened calmly -- as his aides portrayed the scene -- as 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 before moving to his next refuge. The Iraqi president, a man of many palaces, avoids them at moments of maximum risk. There was no guarantee at all, Tenet said, that his whereabouts would be pinpointed again.

For the next three hours, 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 had a hastily prepared insert. 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 Navy warships waiting in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, operations officers reprogrammed Tomahawk cruise missiles on the fly with digital target data transmitted from CIA headquarters at Langley. A squadron of stealthy F-117A strike fighters pulled pilots from their ready rooms and gave them new mission briefs. The aircraft and missiles each carried satellite-guided warheads. The bombs aboard the F-117s were 2,000-pound "bunker busters" designed to penetrate layers of stone and steel.

Three hours after Bush gave the order, at 5:33 a.m. local time, southern Baghdad was rocked by a series of closely spaced explosions, witnesses in the city said. The results were unknown. Iraqi television, competing for air time with the newly American-flagged frequencies of Iraqi radio, reported within hours of the blasts that Hussein was alive and well and would shortly address the nation. The broadcast began about 12:30 a.m. today Eastern time.

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.

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 specifically. After the war, it became clear that the U.S.-led air campaign had tried and failed on dozens of occasions to pinpoint attacks on the Iraqi president.

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 decades 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 the wily and 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.