Decision Comes at Marathon Meeting

Times Staff Writer

President Bush made the decision to go to war during a marathon meeting Wednesday afternoon in the Oval Office with his top security officials -- the third time in the day he had met with military planners.

The unscheduled meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard B. Myers, CIA Director George J. Tenet, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and others, which began around 3:40 p.m. EST, was called because of information from defense officials, a senior administration official said.

Sometime between 6:30 and 7 p.m., the president issued the order to begin military operations.

"The president received the final recommendation from military planners to begin the operation tonight. He reviewed the plans with these officials and gave the go-ahead. That's why the operation came tonight," the official said.

The official would not say whether the operation had been planned to start Wednesday night or whether the time frame was moved up because of intelligence information. "There was always some flexibility in the plans," the official said.

The last meeting broke up around 7:20 p.m., and Bush met briefly with his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson. They discussed his planned address to the nation, which had been in the works for several days.

The president then returned to the White House residence, where he had dinner with First Lady Laura Bush and retired to the living room. He was there when he got a call shortly after 8 p.m. from White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. informing him that there was no indication that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was complying with the president's ultimatum. The president made some final adjustments to the speech and returned to the Oval Office shortly after 9:30 p.m.

Just before he went on the air, as aides were applying makeup, Bush was seen pumping his fist and telling an aide, "Feel good."

Immediately after delivering his speech, the president retired to the White House residence and reportedly went to bed.

"There is no doubt the war has begun," the official said.

The official didn't know whether the president made phone calls to world leaders or anyone else before the speech.

"The president's state of mind is very much focused on the mission and protecting the country," the official said. "He's very comfortable with this. He believes after a lengthy period of thought and deliberation that it is the right and necessary thing to do."

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