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Keeping the capture secret 14 hours

Bush administration officials wanted news of Saddam Hussein's capture to appear as a victory for Iraqis, not a personal triumph for President Bush.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke guardedly when he called President Bush at Camp David at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, with the bombshell that Saddam Hussein apparently was in custody after a fruitless eight-month search that had tormented the White House.

"Mr. President, the first reports are not always accurate," Rumsfeld began, but Bush interrupted before Rumsfeld could finish, according to his aides.

"This sounds like it's going to be good news," the president said.

Rumsfeld then got to the point, by the aides' account, reporting that Army Gen. John Abizaid, the top military commander in Iraq, had called and "feels confident that we got Saddam Hussein."

"Well, that is good news," Bush said, but asked: "How confident is Abizaid?"

"Very confident," Rumsfeld replied.

Business as usual
The administration kept the secret for the next 14 hours, while the military worked to conclusively verify Hussein's identity and Bush's aides made plans for managing the release of the best international news for the White House since the fall of Baghdad in April.

Vice President Cheney went through with an appearance at a Republican fundraiser after Bush called him with the news late Saturday afternoon. As frantic preparations continued for announcing the arrest, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other members of Bush's war cabinet calmly worked the crowds at Christmas parties all over Washington.

Bush told Rumsfeld that the capture must "be handled in a military fashion and be announced from Baghdad," a senior official said. Administration officials explained that they wanted the news to appear to be a victory for the Iraqi people rather than a personal triumph for Bush, who six months before the invasion called Hussein "a guy that tried to kill my dad," a reference to a 1993 assassination plot against former president George H.W. Bush.

With an eye on both U.S. and Iraqi audiences, Bush's aides made tentative plans for administration officials in Iraq to announce the capture at 7 a.m. Eastern time (3 p.m. in Iraq), a schedule that slipped by only a few minutes.

The administration was so conscious of how the news would play in the Arab world that Bush canceled plans to attend St. John's Church, an Episcopal congregation in Washington, yesterday morning because he did not want that to be the setting for his first public appearance after the capture.

After permitting himself that moment of satisfaction with Rumsfeld, Bush and his top aides tried to tamp down any public displays of elation or vindication, sticking to somber and cautious words in public. "It's easy to become overly jubilant," a senior administration official said. "There will still be some dark days ahead."

Initial skepticism
A senior Pentagon official said Rumsfeld and Abizaid had both been initially skeptical when they talked on Saturday afternoon, fearing that their quarry was one of Hussein's look-alikes. Neither wanted to let his hopes get too high and risk disappointment again after several previous instances in which U.S. troops thought they were close to capturing Hussein.

"Abizaid was guarded, and the secretary was doubly guarded," the official said. "It was a very dispassionate conversation between two men who were being very conservative."

In that and several other talks with Abizaid, Rumsfeld "wasn't so much in a decision-making mode as he was giving advice," a senior aide said. "He was running through a list of questions in a memo he had written some time ago, making sure this or that had been considered or taken care of," the aide said.

Rumsfeld called Bush back following their first conversation and said Abizaid had confirmed the capture through "some identifying marks on Saddam Hussein." Bush said he was going to call Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, according to White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Rumsfeld reminded Bush that someone would need to contact Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Bush said he would have Rice inform Powell and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. Rice also called CIA Director George J. Tenet, aides said. The president told first lady Laura Bush himself.

McClellan said that at that point, Bush was "still reserved in his judgment, expressing some caution." He reached Cheney at 3:40 p.m. aboard Air Force Two, just before he landed near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for a campaign fundraiser and photo session with major supporters. When Cheney finished the call with Bush, Rumsfeld was waiting on hold, according to aides.

Bush returned from Camp David by helicopter, as previously planned, arriving at the White House at 7:20. Cheney also returned to Washington and went to a holiday party at Rumsfeld's house along with other administration officials.

At the party, Tim Russert of NBC News told Tenet he had had a dream the night before that the United States had captured Hussein. "Happy holidays, Tim," Tenet replied, according to Russert's on-air account yesterday morning.

Rumsfeld was less cagey when he arrived at a Christmas party at the home of Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rumsfeld swept past a receiving line of guests waiting to greet Myers and his wife, Mary Jo Myers, and said he needed a "secure phone," which he used to place a call to a top aide about the Hussein situation.

When Bush went to bed around 10 p.m. Saturday, his aides were still not positive that it was Hussein — the ace of spades in the administration's deck of cards depicting fugitive Iraqi officials — who was in custody.

Rumsfeld was "pretty certain," an aide said. Abizaid sent him a one-page classified memo outlining the evidence and concluding there was enough to substantiate Hussein's identity, according to a senior Pentagon official. The memo was dated 4 a.m. Sunday.

At 5:14 a.m., Bush was stirring but still in bed in the upstairs residence of the White House when Rice called with confirmation she had gotten a few minutes before from the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer.

Concern over possible leak
Bush wanted to know if the news had gotten out. "We were fairly convinced it was going to leak earlier than it did," a senior administration official said.

Bush and the first lady watched part of Bremer's news conference in the residence, and an aide said the most emotional moment of the day for Bush was when the Iraqis in the audience burst into applause when they saw a photograph of Hussein in captivity. Bush was "thinking about all the Iraqis throughout the country who were having similar reactions," the aide said.

Bush, wearing his customary coat and tie despite the weekend, headed into the Oval Office shortly before 8 a.m. as his aides began preparing for his address to the nation.

White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who had not slept all night because he kept expecting the phone to ring, called Karen Hughes, still a close adviser to Bush though she now lives in Texas. "You better turn on your TV," Bartlett told her jokingly.

Bush called Adnan Pachachi, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, "and expressed his congratulations," according to McClellan. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called Bush, who also talked to other congressional leaders as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller.

Bush also talked to Powell and to Rumsfeld, and to Abizaid "to congratulate our troops," McClellan said.

At 10 a.m. Bush met with his chief speechwriter, Michael J. Gerson, to give him ideas for the speech. Gerson, working with speechwriters John McConnell and Matthew Scully, delivered a draft of the address — which ended up at three minutes and 500 words — by 11:15 a.m.

Bush delivered the remarks from the Cabinet Room to denote a businesslike air, according to aides. Witnesses said Bush was relaxed before air time at 12:15 as he chatted with a small circle of aides, including White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales.

Afterward, Bush returned to the residence before lunch. That evening, he and the first lady kept a previous commitment to attend a network taping of "Christmas in Washington," at the National Building Museum. The cameras captured the president smiling broadly.