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Ex-SAS commando discusses covert operations

Andy McNab
Former SAS commando Andy McNab appeared in silhouette because of threats against his life.

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(CNN) -- A U.S. airstrike on Monday targeted a building in Baghdad that time-sensitive intelligence suggested senior Iraqi leaders, including Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons, were meeting there.

How is intelligence like that gathered and how reliable is it? Andy McNab, a former member of the British Special Air Service (SAS), fought in the Gulf War and has conducted many covert operations similar to this.

He spoke from London with CNN Anchor Paula Zahn on Tuesday about covert operations. He appeared in silhouette because of threats made against his life due to his service in the SAS.

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ZAHN: Andy, I wanted to start off with something, which is in one of our newspapers this morning, USA Today, basically saying that CIA, paramilitary forces and Delta Force commandos were tracking Saddam's communications.

They went on to say that the men, I guess referring to the Iraqi leadership, were discussing how to flee the city when the bombs hit the home and a restaurant attached to it. Describe to us how you think this all came about.

McNAB: Well, I think the whole sort of information-gathering effort around Saddam Hussein has been going on well before the war started. And certainly special forces would react to the information that has been collected. Obviously, if it comes from one human source, that has to be confirmed by using other sources, whether it's technical or other human sources. And then a decision's made at a command level that you're going to get special forces in there, you're going to find this house, this target, and then call in an airstrike.

Interactive: Special Air Service 

ZAHN: Then how do you develop this one human source?

McNAB: A lot of the high command within the Iraqi military they're about the only people who carry cell phones around Iraq. And the system itself, you know, is easily tapped in by the Americans. And the fact is that you know, they are getting phone calls even before the war, saying, look ultimately, we're going to win, you need to come on to our side. There will be deals done with high-ranking military officials to get that information. It's a constant war that's been going on not since ... this war started. But this war's been going on for years, trying to get the mind of the Iraqi military.

ZAHN: You have reason to believe then this was reliable human intelligence?

McNAB: Yes, I think certainly the military planners were going to get the go or no-go on an operation like this are going to look at the information and look at percentages of success, and make the decision whether it's going to happen or not.

It's never going to be 100 percent firm, but they've got to look at the percentages and say, OK, we're 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent sure. Well, let's get on and do it.

ZAHN: And walk us through the next step of what will happen when someone attempts to confirm whether Saddam Hussein or any of his sons or the Iraqi leadership were in the building in the first place.

McNAB: Certainly there would be sort of technology that will be trying to identify the target. But ultimately, if you want to do a surgical strike, what you've got to do is get men on the ground to identify the target. Once those guys get there, whether it's people like Special Air Service or certainly in this case probably be Delta Force. And that can be done in many different ways.

Sometimes it these operations that are quickly formed and guys have got to get out there, in some cases, it could be simply getting a machine gun firing a lot of tracer. And as that aircraft comes in, you're just saying to the aircraft, watch my tracer. And as that bounces off the target, the aircraft can then get into an attack profile and hit it.

ZAHN: Andy, finally this morning, why do think your life is still at risk? You did a lot of work during the first Desert Storm.

McNAB: Yes. I spent a lot of time in the northwest of Baghdad, trying to stop the Scuds (missiles) from firing into Israel, and was eventually captured out there and spent six weeks in an interrogation center in Baghdad.

But a lot of the operations or the Special Air Service has been involved with is this covert war of antiterrorism. And it's been going on for decades now. And certainly, individual operations that I've been involved with, there is a threat against my life. And overall, the type of operations that the Special Air Service (are) involved with, there have been reprisals.

ZAHN: Andy McNab, thanks for sharing your story with us, and thanks for helping us better understand what might have happened in Baghdad last night. Very much appreciate your input.

McNAB: Thank you.

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