Secret weapon in US war against Iraq: the CIA

Intelligence works in unprecedented concert with Pentagon in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Less than one week into the US-led war in Iraq, it is already clear that the campaign involves an unprecedented level of involvement by the CIA.

The shift was clear from the get-go.

President Bush launched the campaign's first airstrikes ahead of schedule after Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, in a now-famous rush to the Pentagon and White House, alerted the president about a fortified bunker where Saddam Hussein and two of his sons were believed to be sleeping.

The results of the airstrikes are still not fully known. But one thing is certain: Since Mr. Tenet was the first to come up with a concrete plan for routing the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, he and his CIA operatives have been playing a much larger role in both shaping American war plans and working together with military Special Operations Forces to implement them than ever before

"The fact that the CIA got into Afghanistan very early and was apparently very helpful is extremely significant," says Stansfield Turner, former director of the CIA. "Now again, we seem to have CIA agents on the ground [in Iraq]. Just to know where Saddam Hussein is in that city is one thing. But to have the confidence that this intelligence wasn't perishable for several hours [in order to recalibrate missile strikes] is quite remarkable."

It may take some time to clarify how successful intelligence-gathering efforts have been in targeting the Iraqi leadership and locating weapons of mass destruction - two main war goals of the Bush administration.

The fighting is still extremely fluid, with daily ups and downs for advancing ground troops engaging enemy forces. The role of intelligence gathering - crucial in all wars - is not only vital in this case, but much more prominent and public. "Those 72 strikes targeting the leadership in the Baghdad area may have impacted tremendously the ability of the leadership group to sustain operations once the war did begin," says retired Brig. Gen. John Reppert, a military-strategy expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "But the other thing I think they deserve a lot of credit for, combined with the military, is what has not happened."

Containing the conflict

For one thing, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the day after the attacks on Hussein's headquarters that only one civilian had been killed. The person had gone into one targeted building at the last minute to make a phone call.

Another is that the war has not spread beyond Iraq's borders. One of the biggest fears in the execution of this war is that it could have caused retaliatory strikes - especially against Israel and Kuwait. A few Iraqi missiles have been launched toward Kuwait, but none has caused lethal or destructive damage to date.

Still, the status of Hussein and his leadership is not known. Monday, a videotape was released showing Hussein. He mentioned ground troops - but in an opaque enough way that the tape could have been made prior to the attacks, based on leaked war plans, as intelligence officials have asserted. "In these decisive days, the enemy tried not using missiles and fighter jets as they did before," Hussein said. "This time, they sent their infantry troops. This time, they have come to invade and occupy your land."

Some experts - including Pentagon and senior government officials - say the government's efforts to separate the leadership from the rest of the military and government is going according to plan. They say that Iraqi military units are acting separately, and are not being issued direct orders from Baghdad.

Iraqi generals on the phone

Moreover, they say, US military leaders and intelligence operatives are in direct contact with both Iraqi generals and unit leaders about potential plans to surrender. "We are in contact with a number of Iraqi unit leaders as we speak," Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the operation, said in a briefing Monday.

Nor have WMD been used or located, as of this writing. "We are continuing to look for weapons of mass destruction," Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, a deputy to General Franks, said on Sunday. "We have received reports from various prisoners that have given us leads. Suffice it to say that we continue to look.... We are confident that we will find it."

Small numbers of CIA paramilitary teams have reportedly been inside Iraq since June 2002. They are said to have broken into the highly secretive phone lines leading into Hussein's headquarters. Moreover, they've collected the e-mail addresses and personal phone numbers for Iraq's top military generals. And last Wednesday afternoon, two hours prior to Tenet's meeting at the White House, Special Forces teams were dropped into Iraq to join the CIA paramilitary teams already there.

This would repeat a pattern set in Afghanistan a year before. They would help fighter pilots with ground targets, search out and disable WMD, and secure the oil fields.

Shortly after Sept. 11, when the president pulled what became known as his "war council" together, the only one with a viable strategy for confronting Al Qaeda and the Taliban was Tenet, say two senior government officials.

The CIA already had assets on the ground, Tenet said, and he had a plan for removing Osama bin Laden's support network and disrupting Al Qaeda activity.

"When President George Bush decided to strip both Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda of their Afghan sanctuary - a decision that moved the war on terror to an entirely different level - the contribution of intelligence was very plain to see," according to a January speech by James Pavitt, the CIA's deputy director for operations. "The first American team on the ground out there was CIA - for a reason."

"As we saw in Afghanistan, there is a growing and unprecedented relationship between the CIA and Pentagon," says a senior White House official.

Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.

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