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Interview With "Washington Post"'s Dana Priest

Aired April 8, 2003 - 14:10   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A smolders hold now marks the upscale restaurant where possibly, just possibly, Saddam Hussein and his two sons might have met for the last time. U.S. officials say it will take DNA tests, time, and a lot more intelligence before anyone knows for sure if, in fact, the Iraqi leadership were killed in the bombing. Joining us now, Dana Priest, a staff writer for the "Washington Post". Thanks for joining us, what's your latest assessment based on the information you're getting from your sources? How convinced are they that the U.S. in these air strikes did, in fact, kill Saddam Hussein and his two sons?
DANA PRIEST, WASHINGTON POST: Well, I hate to say this because we're all looking for the definitive answer on this, but it's very gray. They don't know. That's what they've repeated over and over to me. They do believe they had eyes-on target, which is a good thing. That's human intelligence on the ground that was looking at people coming into that building. And believing that they were seeing Saddam Hussein and some of his intelligence officials with him go in there, so they're confident that they made the right decision to strike the building and that the target was hit, that no one left before it was struck. So that's two and two. Now, unfortunately you can't get to four because they haven't gotten to the body. They won't go in there, in fact. That's one question we've asked. The journalists have been up on the rubble looking around and why haven't the military? And they just say it's too dangerous still. They might be sniped from above. It's not a neighborhood they control, they don't want to get that close yet. They think that sometime they will have to do that. So they're being moderately hopeful is what one person told me, thinking that if everything adds up, they did get him but they just can't say yet.

BLITZER: You remember that air strike also targeting the leadership on the first night of the war. They were moderately hopeful at that time as well but they eventually concluded that they missed. Were they more hopeful, as far as you can tell, the first strike or this time?

PRIEST: You know, I think I would have to say the first strike. Perhaps that's just because they've gotten worn down by that apparent not necessarily failure but still uncertainty. They can figure, well, if we can see him again, why not, as one person told me, why not take the chance that it is him and expend a couple of bombs. And that's what they did. So I do sense they're trying to be more cautious perhaps than we in the news media want to be because we would like to try to tell as much as we can and to get them to push as hard as they can to come up with a definitive answer, which they just aren't ready to do. On the other hand t good news from their point of view is they see this regime as pretty much beheaded. They say there are vital signs but it really is brain dead. What they meant by that is they don't see any kind of real control over units, either the conventional units, the military but more importantly, perhaps, the Fedayeen, Saddam and intelligence services, the diehard Saddam supporters.

BLITZER: Dana, you heard General Mcchrystal say a little while ago at the Pentagon briefing that there was a 45-minute lag between the time they had the hard intelligence supposedly that Saddam and his two sons were there until the bombs actually dropped. And there are some suspicion, there are these underground tunnels that might be able to allow for an escape underneath this building that was targeted. That presumably could give 45 minutes, that could give enough time even if you don't spot anybody leaving from outside, maybe there's a way to leave from underground. Have you heard anything about that?

PRIEST: Nothing definitive. But 45 minutes, I have to say, is about four times shorter than the first strike. And that was because as they get this real-time intelligence, the eyes on the ground that they're talking about, they were able to send that immediately to the Centcom headquarters and they happened to have a couple of b-1 bombers in the air that dropped the ordnance. In terms of turn around time, it was much quicker than the first night. The bunkers and the tunnels that we've written about and you reported are very difficult to get to. Even with the bunker buster bombs. They've been hardened They have feet-thick concrete. A lot of them built by foreign companies. We've got one report of a subway system that was actually begun to be under construction and Saddam stopped that and the thought is that he's using that to hide weapons and also himself perhaps.

BLITZER: Dana Priest of the "Washington Post." thanks very much for spending a few moments with us. Good work on your part.


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