The Strike on Saddam

The Strike on Saddam

It's 2003, and the US is on the brink of war. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been issued a warning - leave the country, or face a full American invasion. In the event of his refusal, the CIA has a plan to strike Saddam's Dora Farms compound, potentially stopping the war in its tracks. The operation is overseen by the head of the Agency's Iraq Operations Group, Luis Rueda. In this episode of True Spies, the former CIA heavyweight shares candid insights into the fevered hours and days ahead of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
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True Spies, Episode 205 - The Strike on Saddam

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Rhiannon Neads, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

LUIS RUEDA: He went around the room and said, “What do you think? What do you think?” And he asked me and I looked at him. And I said, ‘Boy, I, I really feel for you. This is a hard decision to make.” And he said, “That's what I do. That's what the president does. I'm here to make a hard decision.”

NARRATOR: The Strike on Saddam. It’s about 3 p.m. in Washington, D.C., and 11 p.m. in Baghdad, Iraq. March 19, 2003. At the White House and in the Pentagon, officials have their eyes on the clock because the Iraqi leader is on a deadline set by US President George W. Bush. 

LUIS RUEDA: The president made clear, he said, “Look, we're going to invade a country. We're not going to have a declaration of war, but” - and these are not his words, “but - if we're the good guys, we’ve got to do this right. And we have to give them - and we have to have the world see us as giving them - an opportunity to correct the problems that we believe are serious enough that we will invade.”

NARRATOR: Now, for the Americans, that deadline is making things complicated. The CIA had received intelligence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be at a family compound from approximately midnight until three a.m. If the US could strike and kill, it might avert a drawn-out conflict. Nip the whole threat of war in the bud.

LUIS RUEDA: The problem was that the deadline expired at 7 a.m. Iraq time. And we said, “If he leaves at 3 a.m., we're just going to hit stuff. There's a very slim likelihood that he will be there when the sun comes up.”

NARRATOR: Just before the sun rose over Baghdad, two stealth attack aircraft dropped heavy munitions on the compound. It was the 20th of March, 2003. Day one of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

LUIS RUEDA: I don't look back on any individual night or event that happened in Iraq. I look back on the overall situation. What happened, what didn't happen, what we did right, what we did wrong. But I don't look back on individual segments and say, “Oh, we could have done this,” or “We could have done that,” in that sense. That will drive you insane.

NARRATOR: For anyone who worked for the CIA or the US government at the time, rehashing the eight-year war in Iraq means reckoning with mistakes. Some of the more grievous miscalculations are still being rectified in the country of Iraq today. Other missteps have been relegated to mere footnotes in a long and complex history book. Few of the people who play a role in that book speak as candidly, and as self-effacingly, as this week’s True Spy, a former CIA heavyweight, with the candor to pull back the curtain on how wartime intelligence-gathering informed kinetic action at a crucial moment in recent history. And someone who stood eye-to-eye with the president in 2003 and voiced his support for a strike that could have averted a years-long disaster.

LUIS RUEDA: My name is Luis Rueda. I am a retired CIA officer. During March of 2003, I was head of Iraq Operations for the Directorate of Operations at the CIA.

NARRATOR: As an Operations Officer in the CIA, Luis Rueda has worked all over the world, seduced by what he calls the ‘Lawrence of Arabia romance’ of it all. But at the end of the 1990s, he found himself with a family that needed a little more stability than his swashbuckling CIA career had, to that point, afforded him so he opted to stay in Washington and work at the Farm, the CIA’s officer training school.

LUIS RUEDA: For a case officer whose primary focus is overseas, that was almost being assigned to a penal colony. It is a lot of paperwork and a lot of meetings. It is a bureaucracy. So I figured if I had to stay in Washington, I wanted to do something that would be more interesting, more dynamic, and require a lot more from me than just pushing memos and holding endless meetings.

NARRATOR: In 1999, one region in particular seemed like it would relieve Luis of the mundanity of a pen-pushing desk job at the Farm. And when George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency in 2000, he did so on a platform that promised to liberate that region by removing its leader.

LUIS RUEDA: I was watching all the memos coming out of the National Security Council and it was obvious that there was a significant amount of interest in Iraq. The administration was developing a much more aggressive policy toward Iraq and that would be the case for the rest of the administration.

NARRATOR: The CIA’s newly formed Iraq Operations Group, or IOG, would need a leader and Luis pounced on the opportunity.

LUIS RUEDA: I thought this would be interesting. This will keep me engaged and I applied for that job and I got it.

NARRATOR: That’s how Luis found himself at the helm of the IOG at the end of the last millennium, as NATO dropped bombs on Kosovo, Europe began adapting to the euro, and Russia’s head of state resigned, handing the acting presidency over to Vladimir Putin. Whatever stability the US and its allies enjoyed in the early days of the 21st century was about to be upended. 

LUIS RUEDA: I can't say that there was a typical day-to-day. Every day changed. In one aspect, you're trying to manage a group of people and with all the things that come with that, taking care of people's careers, making sure they got the right job, making sure the mail is answered, that sort of thing. At the same time, you're trying to create a covert action program.

NARRATOR: When Luis took the reins at the IOG in ‘99, Iraq was already in the eye of a brewing storm. And in the months following the attacks on September 11, 2001, his area of focus became the obsession of America’s leaders and lawmakers, too.

LUIS RUEDA: So you're having discussions with people within IOG, people outside of IOG: “What's the proper thing? What can we do? What can't we do realistically?” You are attending meetings at the White House, at the Pentagon, so that you're getting a sense of… here's what's going on. Here's what the policy is. Here's what we want the CIA to do. Busy is an understatement.

NARRATOR: Luis’s move to Washington had been intended to temper his taste for adventure. But now, he found that D.C. came with its own kind of intensity. The IOG became an around-the-clock operation. 

LUIS RUEDA: As the lead-up to 2003, there were days I was sleeping on the couch in the office. You start work at 5 a.m. and you don't finish until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. You are going down to Congress to brief the Hill. You're briefing the House - where we call HPSCI, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the SSCI, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence - neither of which will get in the same room with each other. So you can't have one briefing. You've got to do two. So it is busy. It is not normal. And there is nothing typical about it.

NARRATOR: One of Luis’s many tasks was something that most officers in the DO, or Directorate of Operations, don’t normally have to take on.

LUIS RUEDA: President Bush was interesting, as far as presidents go, related to the CIA and intelligence. He was fascinated by intelligence. And it wasn't just Iraq. He liked to understand when someone briefed him on current intelligence. He was interested: “How did you get it? Who did you get it from? How did your case officer go out and make the meeting?” He liked the nitty gritty. So for the first time in a very long time, you had DO officers briefing the president on counterterrorism and on Iraq. Normally, it's the analysts who go do the briefing. I had to go in as the Iraq briefer because that's what the president wanted and that's what the director wanted. So you go in and you brief in detail.

NARRATOR: The president’s daily schedule was so packed that it was broken down into five-minute increments. But even if Luis only had a limited slice of time to deliver the President’s Daily Brief -  or PDB - these sessions were painstakingly prepared, the result of hours of work.

LUIS RUEDA: Articles are selected based on what's going on in the world and what the president wants to read about. Usually, it's early afternoon when the articles are finished. Then they go through the review process. Then they have to hit the publication branch because there's a publication branch that is dedicated to putting out the PDB sometime at night, 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. of the next day. The briefer comes in at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., reads up on the things, and heads down to the White House at about 7 a.m. - and that's fine for normal situations.

NARRATOR: Luis, however, was not working in a normal situation. The president wanted more up-to-date information on Iraq than whatever had happened the day before. 

LUIS RUEDA: What we did was, we had people stay overnight and pull traffic out of all the messages that came in, and prepare the salient facts by 6 a.m. that day. I would take them down to the White House at seven. So our information was one to two hours old as opposed to a day old.

NARRATOR: It wasn’t the ultra-polished work analysts typically prepared for the president. Luis often scrawled his briefings on an index card. But they were as up-to-the-minute as one could expect in the relatively early days of the Internet.

LUIS RUEDA: I think there was a degree of trust coming out of the White House in that we would do the best we could and we would support the policy toward Iraq as best we could, whether we agreed with it or not. I received a sense from dealing with the Defense Department and the vice president's office that there were concerns that elements of the US government would not support an Iraq policy, and thought it was a bad idea in terms of an invasion and regime change. And they were always looking to see if someone - this is probably too strong a word - but if someone was disloyal and not attuned to what they wanted to accomplish. 

NARRATOR: All right. We’ve danced around it long enough. This is as good a time as any for you to learn what Luis did think about what was going on. Because we now know, the covert action Luis was orchestrating was based on intelligence that was - put simply - wrong. The Bush administration accused Iraq of having an active weapons program, but no evidence of such a program was ever uncovered, and no weapons were ever found. Upon leaving the White House, President Bush told the American broadcaster ABC: "The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq." Luis goes a step further.

LUIS RUEDA: This is going to sound self-serving and weaselly, and I apologize. It is not intended to be as such. There were several failures. In the overall policy and in the intelligence field. The WMD piece turned out to be a major failure. My weaselly, self-serving aspect was I had nothing to do with it. 

NARRATOR: US operations in Iraq were influenced by three separate groups that fed information to the White House and the Pentagon. 

LUIS RUEDA: There was the terrorism; the counterterrorism center handled Iraq and terrorism. The Counterproliferation Center handled Iraq WMD. The Iraq Operations Group, which I led, handled everything else. It was straight intelligence collection. It was conducting liaison with friendly intelligence services against the Iraq target. It was developing and then later executing a covert action program in support of the military plan and operation. So what IOG did was the more traditional intelligence collection and the covert action piece.

NARRATOR: In other words, the IOG, as part of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, wasn’t responsible for intelligence analysis.

LUIS RUEDA: We don't go in and say, “He has WMD.” It's the analysts who come up and say, “Based on all the information - open, clandestine, HUMINT, SIGINT, MASINT, IMINT - all the -ints: We think he has WMD.” But I believed it, to be honest. I mean  our analysts were saying this, and NSA analysts, DoD, the British, the Germans - everybody was saying, “He's got WMD.” So I believed it. 

NARRATOR: “He” meaning Saddam Hussein. Luis says he and the rest of the CIA believed that Saddam was spooked by the threat of Iran after the disaster the Iran-Iraq war had wrought in the ‘80s. 

LUIS RUEDA: I think when it came to WMD, one of the things nobody points out is the caveat that the CIA always laid out and said, “Yes, he has WMD, but it poses no threat to the US. He has no means and no intention of attacking the US with chemical or biological weapons.”

NARRATOR: Luis recalls that the Pentagon saw things differently, that they were attuned to hypothetical scenarios in which Iraq might use those chemical weapons. But his role in Washington, within the CIA, was not to be an architect of policy or to command the military.

LUIS RUEDA: I think they understood from us that we’re an apolitical organization. We provide information. We tell them what we think is happening and is going to happen. It is their decision to make, and then it is our decision if we have a piece of it to execute it. And I think they walked away knowing that, yes, we'll do what you tell us.

NARRATOR: In March of 2003, it was widely understood that America was on the brink of war. Although the majority of US citizens were unconvinced that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, Congress had passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. On March 18, the UK parliament approved an invasion. All the while, Luis and his colleagues were ramping up intelligence-gathering efforts.

LUIS RUEDA: We sent CIA teams into northern Iraq, the Kurdish areas, to begin intelligence collection operations, recruiting sources and making connections and that sort of thing. As part of that effort, the teams in northern Iraq began to develop networks inside Iraq and, to a certain point, inside the security apparatus that Saddam Hussein had.

NARRATOR: In fact, it was the successful penetration of Saddam’s inner circle that set the wheels of a hastily assembled mission in motion on the afternoon of March 19, 2003.

LUIS RUEDA: I was literally trying to catch a nap in my office on the couch. I was in jeans. It'd been a long night, a long morning. And somebody comes in and says, “Look at this.”

NARRATOR: The information came from a source on the ground in Iraq, an asset who spent enough time with Saddam that he was starting to be able to predict his movements. Naturally, that was the sort of information that the CIA would want to take advantage of.

LUIS RUEDA: And this individual told us that he believed Saddam would be at Dora Farms. Dora Farms was a family compound. One of his ex-wives lived there. It had been used at times for a meeting location. And one of his responsibilities was setting things up for when Saddam came.

NARRATOR: Dora is a district in Southern Baghdad, and Dora Farms was home to a palatial residence linked to Saddam’s family, as well as a number of other buildings. According to the source, the Iraqi president was expected between midnight and 1 a.m. and would leave by 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. And it wasn’t just Saddam who was expected to be onsite that evening, but his two adult sons, Uday and Qusay. The intelligence presented a highly attractive opportunity. If the US could strike Dora Farms while the Hussein family was present, maybe they could avoid engaging in military hostilities in the country. Was it too good to be true?

LUIS RUEDA: To be honest, Saddam was a wily individual. Never slept in the same place twice. Rarely used armed convoys, tending to take a taxi with one or two bodyguards because he understood how the US operated. He understood that we were looking for him. So he went and did a lot of things to confuse us, including if he were going to go someplace, he would say he was going to three different places. Then you had to guess which place. But the individual we had said, “He is headed to Dora Farms. I am there setting up all this equipment and stuff.”

NARRATOR: That was a pretty unequivocal statement. And other sources of intelligence backed up the claim.

LUIS RUEDA: We had overhead imagery that showed a significant number of vehicles parked at Dora Farms where there never had been. And the number of vehicles and the type of vehicles looked like what we understood to be the movements and security around a very, very, very senior regime official.

NARRATOR: Luis may have been overworked, but all of that intel was enough to shake him wide awake from his afternoon nap. 

LUIS RUEDA: The deputy director for operations came in and said, “We're going down with a director first to the Defense Department, then probably the White House.” Fortunately for me, I had a suit and tie hanging behind the door. And I thought it was one of the more comical and humiliating experiences of my time in Iraq as I was pulling my pants on, running down the hallway of the CIA, boxers hanging out. I'm trying to put a tie on because we’ve got to go. We’ve got to go.

NARRATOR: Time was of the essence. Just a day and a half prior, at 10:16 p.m. Eastern Time, President Bush had appeared on national television and issued an ultimatum. “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised,” he told viewers. And to America’s enemies in the Middle East, he said: “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing.”

LUIS RUEDA: It was part of the administration's effort to get international buy-in, get support from the UN, etc.

NARRATOR: But getting the timing right would be tricky. The clock on President Bush’s ultimatum would run out hours after the CIA’s source said Saddam was likely to be leaving the compound. If the Agency was going to act, it would need to do so with precision.

NARRATOR: By now it was the early afternoon in Washington, eight hours later in Baghdad. Iraq Operations Group had sprung to action.

LUIS RUEDA: I’ve got to tell you, inside the CIA, there is an incredible amount of knowledge and talent, that anything you need done can be done. We went and said, “We need a line diagram of the entire Dora Farms facility in 20 minutes.” And there it was on my desk in 20 minutes.

NARRATOR: The team drove to the Pentagon and briefed Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense. Then they made their way to the White House.

LUIS RUEDA: We went in and briefed the president. The president called in all the major cabinet figures - the national security adviser, SecState, SecDef, the Vice President. Everybody was there in the meeting. 

NARRATOR: President Bush was cautious. How credible was the intelligence? What were the risks? Time was of the essence but the stakes were too high to act recklessly. It was an appealing proposition. Immediately after the 48-hour deadline expired, wipe out Saddam and the US could potentially avert a full-scale war in Iraq. Still, the president had some concerns about the optics of the strike should things not go precisely according to plan. 

LUIS RUEDA: The military raised the idea, “Look, if it's a family compound and it's a family meeting, you may have women and children. You probably will, most likely, have women and children. And the last thing we need is for the US to kill a bunch of women and children.” And the decision was made not to hit several buildings that we believed housed women and children.

NARRATOR: A move that was as strategic as it was humanitarian. Luis agreed with it. But it was a decision that came at a price.

LUIS RUEDA: Your chances of hitting Saddam are just steadily declining. You're hitting them after we think he's going to leave. You're eliminating a whole bunch of buildings that have bedrooms where he will be sleeping. He's not going to sleep in the barn. And so your odds of taking him out, of killing him, have been greatly reduced.

NARRATOR: Many of the most powerful figures in the world sat in the room with Luis trying to work out the maths problem that was this high-stakes potential strike.

LUIS RUEDA: The discussion at that point was, “Do we strike Saddam with Tomahawk missiles?” And this is where the deadline was getting us. If we struck Dora Farms with Tomahawks, it would take a certain amount of time. I mean Tomahawk, as aircraft vehicles go, is relatively slow, between 500-600 miles an hour. Fired from the Persian Gulf, it takes X amount of time to reach the target. So if you want to hit the target right after the deadline expires, we’ve got to launch at this point. 

NARRATOR: Of course, the deadline expired around dawn but Saddam was expected to leave around 3 a.m. The timing was hardly ideal to begin with. Then a new piece of information threw a spanner in the works.

LUIS RUEDA: As we were in the meeting, we received an intelligence report saying there was a bunker.

NARRATOR: That was a problem. If indeed there was a bunker on the compound, the Americans’ Tomahawk missiles might not do the job of penetrating deep enough to kill Saddam and his sons. They’d need what’s called in military parlance ‘bunker-busters’. Their weaponry would need to be heavier - meaning it would be even slowerThe US Air Force had two F-117 attack aircraft it could use - small planes that could carry two bunker-busting bombs apiece. But the timing would be a challenge. Unlike Tomahawks, which require pre-programming and move at a relatively predictable speed, the F-117s could be finicky and subject to greater variability due to weather and human maneuvering. Plus, the Americans would have to send the F-117s into Iraqi airspace without any fighter protection. 

LUIS RUEDA: And they're going to go in there with all those radars the Iraqis have, all those surface-to-air missiles, risk their lives to drop the bombs, and then get out. And it takes time to get there and it takes time to get out. And it's not like a Hollywood thing where they’re in the arena in two minutes and they're out in two minutes. It's like an hour.

NARRATOR: The F-117s weren’t fighter jets. The personnel onboard would have no way of defending themselves. The Air Force gave the mission a 50 percent chance of success.

LUIS RUEDA: Everything up until then is very theoretical, except for the intelligence operations in northern Iraq. Everything is relatively theoretical. We're going to go to war. We're going to go do this. We're going to go do that. Now, all of a sudden, it hit me. People's lives were on the line. And again, you're going to invade and you know inside that there's going to be a lot of people's lives on the line. It's that concept of, you talk about millions and it's just an abstract number. You talk about one or two and it becomes very real.

NARRATOR: Luis wasn’t the only one having a moment of realization. As he recalls, the gravity of the situation seemed to hit President Bush in a similar way.

LUIS RUEDA: He was coming to the same conclusion: “This is it. This is the big thing. We're putting people in harm's way. We have to do this.” And he went around the room and said, “What do you think? What do you think?” And the general consensus was: “We’ve got to take the chance. Even if he's not there, we’ve got to take the chance in the event he's there.” And he asked me and I looked at him and -  I guess, I guess I'm somewhat stupid - and I said, “Boy, I, I really feel for you. This is a hard decision to make.” And he said, “That's what I do. That's what the president does. I'm here to make a hard decision.” And so he listened to everybody, and made the decision: “We'll go in with the F-117s.” And then he called in his press people and said, “Here's what's going to happen.”

NARRATOR: According to Luis, President Bush believed that the best way to develop support was to be as upfront and straightforward about the invasion as he could be.

LUIS RUEDA: So there's a minimal sense of, “Oh, they're keeping this from us or doing this on the QT.” So it was an effort to say, “Here's what we're going to do. Here's why we're going to do it. And please support us.”

NARRATOR: And that was it. It was all decided. The F-117s were launched.

LUIS RUEDA: The Agency contingent, which was the deputy director, the director, and the deputy director for operations, we all went back to the building that night. I sat there and waited. 

NARRATOR: Luis and his colleagues sat and watched the invasion happen on huge plasma-screen TVs from their headquarters. The US was using Blue Force tracking devices on every soldier, vehicle, and aircraft. Each of these forces appeared on a map on screen as a separate blue dot.

LUIS RUEDA: And I sat there in the conference room with these plasma screen TVs, and the entire country of Kuwait was blue. That's how much hardware and personnel we had in Kuwait. The entire country was blue.

NARRATOR: By the time the President received his next address to the American people from his speechwriters, two blue dots - the F-117s - had crossed into Iraqi airspace.

LUIS RUEDA: They arrived on target at the precise time, and all the blue in Kuwait started to spread. It was like an ink stain that started to spread across the map as US forces crossed the berm, crossed the border, and started the drive up to Baghdad.

NARRATOR: The strike was expected to be in motion when the president addressed the nation at 10:15 p.m. And, if you’re wondering about Luis’s wellbeing - yes, it had been yet another very, very long day.

LUIS RUEDA: I'll be honest, at that point, I am exhausted and verging on being burned out. And it's probably a terrible thing to say, but I don't have emotions at that point. They have been squeezed out of me like an orange. It's just, you're just worried that ‘Please, please let everything function. Let everything go according to plan. Let all our people come home.’ And inside you understand that - at least on the military side - some people aren't going to come home. And that, I think, is a weighty thing.

NARRATOR: Even if things went perfectly, Luis knew it wouldn’t be a good night. 

LUIS RUEDA: There are bad nights, but there are no good nights. You are swept up in the moment. You are consumed by the mission. Getting the job done, making sure things work the way you intend them to work, making sure people are safe. You're going to put them in harm's way and that's unavoidable. So there's no really no real good night.

NARRATOR: But of course, on that night - March 19 - things didn’t go perfectly. At 4:42 a.m. in Baghdad, slightly before the Americans had originally intended, bunker-busting bombs rained down on Dora Farms. Intelligence reports from the compound were compromised by the chaos of the scene but the CIA’s assets delivered reports that gave the crew in Washington cause for optimism.

LUIS RUEDA: We had reporting that came in from Iraq, from Iraqis on the ground, that said they pulled out a bunch of people from the rubble, including somebody who looked like Saddam. We thought he had been killed, that there was a better than 50 percent chance he had been killed, we thought.

NARRATOR: From his desk in the Oval Office, George W. Bush looked into the camera, and said: “My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” But by the time the sun had risen the next morning, and the team at the IOG were beginning yet another day of work, their intelligence reports had come into question. The F-117 pilots had survived, but a key agent at the compound had been killed by a cruise missile. Other assets had been injured. And despite reports that the Hussein brothers had been injured, Uday Hussein was alive. Qusay Hussein was alive. And Saddam, it was later confirmed, was alive too.

LUIS RUEDA: Somebody told me, in one of the debriefings, he had been there but he had left long before the strike. He had stopped in Dora Farms, and I think he had pulled out by 1 a.m. So there was no way we were going to get him. He was long gone. Even if we didn't have the deadline, we would have probably hit him or tried to hit him well after he had left.

NARRATOR: If that was true - if Saddam had left at 1 a.m. - it didn’t matter that the US had decided not to strike the main palace, where women and children might have been sleeping. Nor did it matter that they’d brought bunker-busters. Not to mention the fact that - as they later learned - there wasn’t even a bunker at Dora Farms to begin with. Just an air raid shelter. Their source probably hadn’t known the difference, and, given the tight timeline, the Americans had had to act on what they knew. None of it mattered because nothing of consequence came out of the strike. With one major exception: the US had officially launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.

LUIS RUEDA: How do I feel? At that point, there's a degree of disappointment where you say, “Yeah, maybe we could have ended this sooner.”

NARRATOR: ‘This’ meaning the war in Iraq.

LUIS RUEDA: But a lot of stuff doesn't work out in military operations and invasions. There's luck, good and bad. There's happenstance. Things happen. Don't happen. You take a shot, it doesn't work. You move on and you try something else.

NARRATOR: It has been a very long day for Luis Rueda, in the midst of a very long month, in what would become a very long year, the start of a very long war. Was he at least able to get a bit of rest?

LUIS RUEDA: I mean, first of all, I don't get into bed. The war has started. There is no bed for Luis Rueda. At that point, I am consumed by what's going on on the ground in Iraq. You're focused on that. You're worried about that. I don't want to give the impression that missing Saddam at Dora Farms was like you don't care about it, but you know that these things are going to happen. It's not your job to curl up in a fetal position and cry about it. You’ve got to say, “Okay, how do we avoid this happening again? Let's move on. Let's accomplish the mission, accomplish the objective.” You have to put personal feelings and emotions to the side.

NARRATOR: Twenty years on, Luis has had plenty of time to think it over. Not to curl up in the fetal position, just to reflect.

LUIS RUEDA: I'm not ambivalent about my career. I am ambivalent about Iraq. Getting rid of Saddam and his sons was a good thing. But we, the entire US national security apparatus, screwed the pooch on that one. I remember I was at the Sit Room, the Situation Room meeting, where Secretary Powell said, “If you break it, you own it.” And he was 100 percent correct. And damn, we made every mistake in the book after victory, theoretically. And what came afterward is our fault. It's not al-Qaeda's fault. We made the problem. We were fortunate enough that we can walk away, and we still left them holding the bag.

NARRATOR: I’m Rhiannon Neads. Join us next week, for another encounter with True Spies.

Guest Bio

The CIA's Luis Rueda ran the Agency's operations inside Iraq and briefed former President George W. Bush and top advisers on intelligence that could enable the president to call off the Iraq invasion.

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