Wolf Blitzer: The whole world was watching

Story highlights

  • CNN is marking its 35th anniversary this year
  • CNN drew worldwide attention in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait
  • Wolf Blitzer recalls how closely CNN was being watched in Washington and Baghdad

Watch Wolf Blitzer host "CNN Special Report: Breaking News: 35 Years of CNN" at 9 p.m. ET/PT Monday.

Washington (CNN)It didn't take long for me to appreciate CNN's worldwide reach and impact.

When Saddam Hussein's forces moved into Kuwait on August 2, 1990, I had recently joined the 10-year-old cable news channel and was driving home from a "background" dinner with a high-ranking U.S. official.
That official had told me and a few other journalists that the U.S. intelligence community didn't believe that Hussein would actually invade a fellow Arab country. The prevailing assessment, he said, was that there might be some border skirmishes but no full-scale invasion. The official said the Iraqis simply wanted to scare the Kuwaitis so that the price of oil might go up.
    Wolf Blitzer
    That line was consistent with what I had heard earlier in the day at the Pentagon when a top military commander briefed a few reporters. No full-scale invasion, he said. That was the intelligence community's assessment.
    But within a few hours, we all learned that assessment was wrong. There was a full-scale invasion. The Emir of Kuwait and the top leadership quickly escaped and fled to Saudi Arabia. Iraq took complete control of Kuwait. It was a brutal military occupation.
    I was then CNN's new military affairs correspondent and was quickly called back to the Pentagon to start reporting live. During one of my initial live reports, the anchor asked me what I thought President George H.W. Bush and his team of national security advisers were going to do about the Iraqi invasion.
    I pointed out that the answer was unclear.
    The United States, I said, had no formal treaty obligations to Kuwait. No U.S. troops were then stationed in the region. The Kuwaitis, Saudis and the other friendly Arab states in the Gulf always wanted U.S. troops "over the horizon," in places such as in Diego Garcia, the atoll in the Indian Ocean. I simply said that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Colin Powell, were meeting urgently with top commanders to plot strategy.
    After that initial report, I remember coming back to my office on the E Ring of the Pentagon and quickly receiving a call from a very high-ranking Pentagon official who told me that he and other top military commanders were watching CNN.
    "Wolf, don't you know what you are doing?" the official asked with a clear tone of anger and frustration.
    I asked him to explain. He said correctly that I was reporting from the press briefing room at the Pentagon. He said that I was standing in front of the Defense Department podium with the map of the world behind me.
    The official added: "Wolf, they are watching CNN in Baghdad. They see you standing at the Pentagon, and they just heard you say that it was unclear what the U.S. would now do. They're not all that sophisticated. For all practical purposes, they think you are the Pentagon."
    What I didn't know then but what I later learned was the Bush national security team was freaking out that the tens of thousands of Iraqi Republican Guard elite forces would not stop in Kuwait but would continue their invasion into the oil-rich eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. There really was not much standing in their way. The Pentagon leadership was concerned that I was inadvertently encouraging the Iraqis to move south into Saudi Arabia.
    I asked the official a simple question: "So what ARE you going to do about the Iraqi invasion?"
    The official said to me that President Bush had authorized him to tell me that "all options are on the table, including the military option."
    I asked whether that meant that the United States was going to respond militarily to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
    "All options," the official said sternly, "including the military option, are on the table."
    He said I could report that on CNN though he asked that I not quote him by name.
    Within a few minutes, I was reporting that information live around the world.
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    What later became clear to me was that the Bush administration was anxious to get that message across to Hussein and his advisers in Baghdad. The official later told me that the fastest way to deliver that warning was to get it on CNN, which, of course, was being watched in Baghdad and indeed around the world.
    I have no idea whether my report did in fact have an impact on the Iraqi leadership, but we do know that the Iraqis stopped their forces at the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. There was no move into Saudi Arabia.
    It took a few days for the world to see that the military option was indeed on the table. President Bush ordered Operation Desert Shield to begin later in August and the United States and its coalition partners eventually built up a force of more than half a million troops in the Persian Gulf. The mission: liberate Kuwait.
    Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991, with the start of the air war and later the ground assault that quickly did in fact liberate Kuwait by the end of February.
    CNN was then the only 24/7 cable television news network, in the days before news was available on the Internet, and we were, of course, reporting the story nonstop. If there were ever any doubt, it went away the night that the air war started and we heard Bernard Shaw in Baghdad declare: "The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated."
    He, John Holliman, Peter Arnett and our team of producers and photojournalists had courageously stayed in the Iraqi capital even as almost all others had left in advance of the war.
    Indeed, the whole world was watching as CNN came of age.