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RAY SUAREZ: For the latest on yesterday’s strike, and how intelligence services plan such attacks and assess their outcomes, we turn to Eric Schmitt, who’s been following the story for the New York Times, and one of our corps of regular military analysts, retired Army Colonel W. Patrick Lang; he’s a former special forces officer, and longtime Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Eric Schmitt, what are your sources telling you about how the information was developed that prompted this attack?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, Ray, what we understand is that early yesterday, a spy effectively in Iraq passed along information to the Central Intelligence Agency that there was going to be a meeting yesterday afternoon, a meeting of high-level Iraqi officials which they believe could include Saddam Hussein and his two sons. This information was quickly passed along to a targeting cell the military runs at its headquarters in Qatar.
Within 45 minutes of receiving this information, the targeters were able to put together essentially a mission plan and get the coordinates to an Air Force B-1 bomber that was already orbiting over Iraq. It was supposed to hit other targets but was quickly redirected and dropped four 2,000-pound satellite bombs on this complex in the al Mansour district of Baghdad where they believed this meeting was going on. This took place about 3:00 yesterday in Baghdad.
So what this shows is the military is what is called a time sensitive target. They have planes aloft, fighter bombers ready to strike targets at a moment’s notice as soon as the intelligence is passed along to them.
RAY SUAREZ: Patrick Lang, how do you develop intelligence like this? Is it a combination of hard work on the ground and a little luck?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: No, I don’t think there’s a lot of luck involved here. In fact, to develop this kind of intelligence, you have to start well in advance. The crisis has gone on for a number of months now. So I think it’s quite possible, you know, using Iraqi expatriate groups or friendly Kurdish people in the north, things like that, to have someone help you to contact someone in Baghdad and to involve this person in the need to have this precise information and then you go from one person to another acquiring them all until you– in what is called the intelligence business daisy chaining– until you will get to the point where you have the right person who has the right access. And then when the moment comes, given the state of telecommunications today, satellite communications, this agent can communicate to you this very important piece of information as was just described.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Eric Schmitt describe an operation that was pulled together very quickly. Does this kind of information have a very short shelf life?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, sure because if in fact this was a meeting which had only an hour or two of duration then in fact the strike would have to take place in the time bracket in which it was estimated these people would be there and because of everything lining up like this it’s easy for this airplane in flight to reprogram this global positioning satellite guided set of bombs on the right building. And if they gave them the right coordinates and Saddam was there, the chances he’s alive is not very great.
RAY SUAREZ: Eric Schmitt, maybe you could give us a little technical rundown of how it is that an air force can target three buildings in the midst of a city of over five million people. What equipment is used?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, what the B-1 bomber has on it are obviously a number of weapons as Pat has just described that are satellite guided. That is, they’re steered to their specific set of coordinates by an orbiting set of satellites. So once you get the very specific coordinates on the ground and the United States has very sophisticated maps now of Baghdad and in fact of all of Iraq — they can basically put latitude and longitude coordinates on any fixed site, any building, that is, they want. Those coordinates go right into this weapon and can be dropped from quite high altitudes.
So what we’re seeing here is the ability to fuse, if you will, the intelligence that’s gathered by a spy on the ground, get it to some very technical experts in the military headquarters and quickly beam it up to the plane itself. And the plane is already aloft so you don’t waste any time that way. The coordinates are put into the weapon. The weapon is dropped. And it falls right where it’s supposed to in this case.
The destruction we’ve seen on television shows it presumably it hit its mark. The big question is was Saddam there? That’s something we’re all going to have to wait and see. Today the intelligence community is still combing over reports that they can see that, that ground in Iraq, in Baghdad, rather, is not held by U.S. forces so obviously they’ll try and get as much information as they can to find out if the strike was successful.
RAY SUAREZ: When you’re talking, Pat Lang, about a place that’s not held by the United States, how do you figure out what, if anything, was hit?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, they’ll listen very closely to what the Iraqis are saying to each other on cell phones and the like you know, to see if there are reflections there. Other human intelligence assets in the area, special ops guys or special activity division people from CIA working with Iraqis can gather a certain amount of ground truth from what’s being said on the location. But probably a definitive answer will probably have to wait until we do hold the ground and they can investigate it in great depth and actually look for some tissue that’s got the right DNA.
RAY SUAREZ: Eric, is there any indication now that… there have been several attacks directly targeted on to the top handful of men at the top of Iraq– that U.S. Intelligence has penetrated Iraqi leadership at the highest circles?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, clearly if you take this strike coupled with the first strike on March 19, they’re getting obviously very good intelligence on senior Iraqi leaders and possibly even Saddam Hussein himself. So they’ve gotten a big break here as they’ve gone into the war with Iraq. Somebody apparently — they’ve been able to crack the inner circle and get that information out. Obviously they’re not saying who this might be. They don’t want to disclose those kinds of sources and if it’s more than one. But clearly the United States is closing in on some of the top leadership in the Iraqi regime, what’s left of it.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Patrick Lang, are the Iraqis or any opponent defenseless in that case, or are there techniques when you’ve got a mole, when you’ve been penetrated that you can use to try to figure out who’s leaking?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: To be a mole in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle is about the most dangerous possible thing I could imagine because this is a police state in which watchers are assigned to watch other watchers who are watching other people. Everybody is watching everybody else. And any sign of the slightest deviation from normal routines or anything that could possibly be established as a form of communication to the outside will result in immediate apprehension and perhaps execution.
This is a very tough thing to do. But obviously it’s possible to do it. In a situation like this where these senior people are hoping for a life after Saddam Hussein, some of them, you’re always going to find somebody who can be had in the intelligence sense.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there a technique that you know of in intelligence circles that’s used in this kind of situation?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: You mean to recruit them?
RAY SUAREZ: No, to figure out who is talking to the other side.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think it’s just massive… yes, there is, in fact. What you would do is you would figure out from the evidence of a strike which clearly involved a penetration of your circle, you would try to run what you usually call a back azimuth, in other words to look back down the line of sight and see who had access to this information to try to triangulate in on who the smallest number of people are who could possibly have been the source. Then you start picking them apart one at a time until you find somebody you think is the right person.
RAY SUAREZ: And kill them if necessary.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well in that country I think anything could happen. In a lot of places maybe something not quite so drastic.
RAY SUAREZ: Patrick Lang, Eric Schmitt, thank you both.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: You’re welcome.
ERIC SCHMITT: Thank you.