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With the words 'Let's go,' Bush authorized war

Determination and emotion mark decision

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush, right, meets with Vice President Dick Cheney, center, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outside the Oval Office Wednesday, shortly after authorizing the strike against Iraq.
President Bush, right, meets with Vice President Dick Cheney, center, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outside the Oval Office Wednesday, shortly after authorizing the strike against Iraq.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- "Let's go." Those were the words uttered by President Bush to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, at 7:12 p.m. EST Wednesday, that authorized the United States to begin war with Iraq, an attack that rewrote the war plan Bush had given field commanders authority to execute at an emotional meeting just 11 hours earlier.

The two-word command came at the close of a nearly four-hour Oval Office meeting at which CIA Director George Tenet and Rumsfeld recommended altering the battle plan -- and significantly advancing the start of the war -- because of intelligence suggesting Saddam Hussein and other senior Iraqi leaders, including Saddam's two sons, Uday and Qusay, were gathered at a residential compound in Baghdad.

The episode was recounted Thursday night by a senior White House official who provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse of several key moments in the run up to war -- from the president's return flight from the emergency weekend summit in the Azores to an emotional salute with Gen. Tommy Franks after issuing the execute order for the broader battle plan.

The war plans changed suddenly Wednesday afternoon.

CIA Director Tenet was at the Pentagon when officials received what the White House official described as "actionable" intelligence, information other sources said were solid leads that Iraqi leadership figures and perhaps even Saddam Hussein had been located.

Tenet and Rumsfeld asked for an urgent meeting with the president, and as they rushed to the White House, other members of the Bush "War Council" were summoned, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

During the Oval Office meeting, Bush was briefed on a hastily drawn up plan to launch cruise missiles and to have stealth fighters attack the Baghdad compound. On several occasions, the official said, either Rumsfeld or Myers left the Oval Office to contact Franks and others on secure lines in nearby offices to get answers to the president's questions.

At one point, Rumsfeld read portions of Bush's Monday night address to the American people to Franks, and asked him if the dramatic "decapitation" mission being contemplated was in any way inconsistent with the mission described by the president.

Franks -- who is in the Persian Gulf region -- said it did not, but also told those on hand that 7:15 p.m. was the deadline for a decision. That was because he had ordered the F-117 fighter bombers into the air and, after that point, would not be able to turn them around or get the cruise missile strikes properly coordinated.

As the clock ticked down, Bush asked Tenet for another update on intelligence from the field. After hearing that information and the recommendations from Tenet and Rumsfeld to proceed, he issued his orders by saying, "Let's go."

The orders were conveyed to Myers. Bush then immediately met with his chief speech writer, Mike Gerson, to sketch out an address to the nation announcing hostilities were under way.

Other officials told CNN that up until Bush made his "go" order, the military campaign was not scheduled to begin Wednesday night, and under some scenarios would not have begun until Friday.

Prayer for pilots

Bush then had dinner with the first lady and at 10:05 p.m. -- 10 minutes before his Oval Office address to the nation -- was told by Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley that the operation appeared to have gone off as planned, though the F-117A pilots were still over Iraq.

"Let's pray for the pilots," Bush told assembled aides, just before sitting at his desk to make final preparations for his speech.

At 10:40 p.m., National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called the president, who had retired to the residence, and told him the pilots had cleared Iraqi airspace and were on approach back to their base in the region.

It was early Wednesday morning when Bush gave the orders to execute the plans for the broader military campaign.

According to the senior White House official, the president convened a meeting in the White House situation room with his National Security Council. Bush went around the room and asked each member of his "war council" for any final comments on the plan before them. After each spoke, Franks and a half-dozen of his top deputies were brought into the meeting from various bases and ships in the region via secure video conferencing.

The senior official said the room was crackling with tension, but exploded into laughter at one point when Franks, speaking from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, had several problems with the switch to open his audio connection to the call and Bush chimed in, "Don't worry Tommy, I haven't lost faith in you."

With Franks essentially acting as master of ceremonies, Bush spoke briefly to each of a half-dozen of the field commanders, including the top Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine and Special Operations officers serving under Franks.

One at a time, Bush asked each field commander two questions:

• Do you have everything you need to win?

• Are you comfortable and pleased with the strategy?

'Ready to go'

President Bush, center, meets with his national security and communications advisers in the Oval Office Wednesday, after authorizing military action against Iraq.
President Bush, center, meets with his national security and communications advisers in the Oval Office Wednesday, after authorizing military action against Iraq.

Each of the commanders answered in the affirmative, and Franks outlined the rules of engagement and told the president the force was "ready to go."

At that point, the senior White House official said, it was in the 8 a.m. hour -- 12 hours before the deadline for Saddam Hussein to accept exile or face war.

Bush told the meeting he approved of the plan and said: "For the peace of the world and the benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people, I hearby give the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Bush then said, "May God Bless the troops," and Franks responded, "May God Bless America."

The president and Franks then exchanged salutes over the video link, and Bush ended the meeting.

Those orders authorized the broad military plan -- much of which remains to be executed.

The senior White House official also described the final hours of the effort to win U.N. Security Council backing for military action.

At the emergency Azores summit, President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain pledged to make one final effort to sway Security Council members to back a new resolution.

But aboard Air Force One on the flight home, the Bush team was already assuming the effort would fall short -- and working on the speech Bush would deliver Monday night declaring diplomacy over and issuing his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.

In Bush's office aboard the Air Force 747, Bush and a handful of top aides discussed draft paragraphs of the speech. Those on hand included Chief of Staff Andrew Card, top adviser Karen Hughes, Communications Director Dan Bartlett, National Security Adviser Rice and chief speech writer Gerson.

After working for roughly an hour on the draft, the group took a break and watched -- "regrettably," the senior official said with a smile -- "Conspiracy Theory," featuring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts.

More work was done after the movie -- "more edits and more changes," the official said -- and the rough outlines of the speech were in place by the time Bush landed at Andrews Air Force Base late Sunday night.

Bush spoke with Prime Ministers Blair and Aznar Monday morning, and while diplomacy appeared doomed because of the French veto threat and other council opposition, they decided to give their foreign ministers a bit more time.

But Powell told a National Security Council meeting a short time later that the resolution was doomed to defeat, and the three leaders decided in a later conversation to withdraw it instead of seeking a vote that would have led to certain defeat.

Bush delivered his ultimatum Monday night, and the following morning had an extensive intelligence and military planning meeting in the Oval Office to go over the intricate details of the early stages of the battle plan -- the president's final briefing before the Wednesday morning session at which he issued his broad "execute order" authorizing field commanders to carry out the plan.

Speaking late Thursday evening, the senior White House official described the president as "heartened by" the progress so far and "admiring of the men and women" carrying out the battle plan.

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