WASHINGTON — For three hectic, pressure-filled days, President Reagan shuttled back and forth by helicopter between the White House and Bethesda Naval Hospital, conferring with top national security officials about a retaliatory attack on Iran and meeting with doctors about the condition of his wife Nancy, who had undergone surgery for breast cancer.
Then on Sunday night, winding up perhaps the most wrenching weekend of his presidency, he summoned congressional leaders to the White House where he first gave them an optimistic medical report on his wife, then calmly announced that he had selected an Iranian target that would be attacked the next morning by U.S. ships.
The attack on a former oil drilling platform in the Persian Gulf that was being used as a military and intelligence base by the Iranians would take place at 3:30 a.m. PST Monday.
The 76-year-old President, relaxed and casually clad in slippers and a blue and white warmup jacket when he met with congressional leaders in the third-floor living quarters of the White House at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday, was accompanied by defense and diplomatic officials who provided details of the planned military operation.
But Reagan himself was clearly in command and fielded several sharply worded questions about the military operation from Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), according to other congressional leaders.
"He did not seem to be at all distracted or anxious, but was quite confident and seemed at peace with his decision," said House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). "He seemed to feel the attack on the Iranian platform was the appropriate response, that he had met the terms and conditions that should be applied in this situation."
Beginning of Plan
Reagan began making plans to take retaliatory action last Friday immediately after receiving a report of an Iranian missile attack earlier in the day that damaged a Kuwaiti oil tanker flying the U.S. flag and injured 17 crewmen and the American captain.
At 7 a.m. EDT Friday, the President met with members of the National Security Planning Group in a hurried meeting in the Situation Room in the West Wing basement of the White House, where sensitive military operations are planned and monitored.
After being given a full report of the attack, Reagan discussed the need to respond in a restrained, proportionate and measured way to demonstrate to the Iranians that they could not attack U.S. facilities or ships with impunity.
The President and his advisers apparently quickly rejected the idea of launching a military strike against land-based Silkworm missile sites in Iran.
Although his advisers assured Reagan that it would be possible to launch a successful attack against the Silkworm sites, the missiles would be a difficult target to hit and an attack on them could escalate hostilities and cause the loss of American lives.
Reagan laid down broad guidelines for selecting the target, with emphasis on minimizing the risk to lives. Officials said that he left the meeting with the understanding that Frank C. Carlucci, his national security adviser, would coordinate the preparation of options with officials of the State and Defense departments, CIA and NSC staff.
The planning group, chaired by Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, the deputy national security adviser, met with Carlucci five or six times Friday and Saturday "and basically produced a consensus on options," according to one of the officials.
On Saturday at 7:30 a.m. EDT, Mrs. Reagan had surgery for removal of her cancerous left breast. When the President returned to the White House from the Bethesda hospital at 2:45 p.m., he went almost directly to his living quarters for a 3 p.m. meeting with Carlucci, Powell, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger; White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr.; Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael H. Armacost, under secretary of state for political affairs.
"That's basically where the decision emerged" to attack the Iranian military platform, the official said.
The officials reportedly discussed as many as a dozen options, ranging from strikes against the Silkworm sites to strikes against military bases, islands and specific Iranian ships or boats.
Apparently none of the officials argued for a more forceful or dramatic attack.
"There wasn't a thing we couldn't have done if we had wanted to," said one official. "But the options were presented to the President in an organized way. And the President acted firmly and decisively. Everything was carried out in a serious, businesslike way. Some people have suggested we should have done more. We carefully considered that, and we can do more if we have to, but we're not looking to escalate it."