Only handful knew when strike would begin

January 17, 1991|By New York Times

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James Baker 3rd gave the news to Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, in a private briefing.

The prince then called King Fahd yesterday, and -- using a prearranged code word -- gave the hosts of Operation Desert Storm final word of imminent war against Iraq.

President Bush's warnings and Baker's last-chance pleas of recent days made it apparent that the administration would wage quick war if Iraq did not vacate Kuwait.

But officials say the planning and precise timing of last night's military strike were carefully concealed, an enigma to most foreign and domestic leaders and even to administration insiders until the final instant.

It was a combination of tight security, quick decision-making by the White House, which appears to have chosen the moment of the strike only in recent days, plus a touch of strategic deception to throw off the press and the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, officials said.

"It's exactly the way they should have done it," said an administration official who worked on Desert Storm operations, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"This administration makes decisions only at the top. They eliminated most of the staff officers from the process, and Defense limited information to the very top."

Officials said last night that final planning for Desert Storm had been under way for weeks, centered in Saudi Arabia under the command of Gen. Norman H. Schwarzkopf, head of the allied effort there.

In Washington, plans were coordinated by a tight knot of no more than 20 with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and were known only to a handful of senior Bush administration officials, including Baker, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and his deputy, Robert Gates.

Most other senior policy makers were excluded from any knowledge of the plans, one official said.

It could not be learned when Bush decided to launch the operation. Cheney said Bush gave him written authorization for the strike only on Tuesday, with the proviso that operations would be called off if Iraq dropped its opposition to evacuating forces from Kuwait.

Other administration and military officials said they believed Bush decided on a quick strike fairly early in his deliberations, and advertised that decision to President Saddam Hussein in his public remarks.

Then came the White House's almost dead silence Tuesday and yesterday -- a move, one administration official said, to keep Iraq's leaders on edge.

Top officials slowly unwrapped the operation, beginning with the meeting with Prince Bandar.

The Saudis already had given Baker a green light for the attack when Baker met with Fahd in Riyadh last Thursday, but the exact timing was left to Bush.

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