- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

I admit I am a little obsessive about the risk of nuclear blasts in America right at the moment. But as topics about which to obsess go, nuclear incineration of Americans is a pretty reasonable one. I continue to be amazed at the calmness, in fact indifference, with which most commentators as well as the public approach the fact that, since October, our government has designated avoidance of nuclear blasts in America as the single highest intelligence priority. Even catching al Qaeda terrorists only reaches that priority if they are suspected of being involved in nuclear activity.

I suppose it should be comforting to see such calmness in the face of such danger. But I am more inclined to impute the lack of mental activity on the topic to the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, which is a psychological malady in which facts are mentally rejected when they are incongruous with established attitudes.

Most people cannot accept the possibility that we should fear a nuclear blast downtown this afternoon. Other than during the two weeks of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, while Americans have had the possibility of nuclear war in the back of our minds, we have never had to contemplate its immediate application to our lives. Yet that is what our government has on its mind. Such sober and vastly experienced men as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are thinking about it every day. Why aren't you?

After all, it's not as if public attitudes don't matter. The president may have to ask Congress for permission to invade Iraq in furtherance of this objective. Should public support slip, he might not be given that permission.

Admittedly, as far as public facts are concerned, it is not certain that Iraq has or will soon have nuclear weapons. Neither is it certain that al Qaeda has such weapons. But our government doesn't have the luxury of acting on only certainty.

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has written: "Statesmen always face the dilemma that, when their scope for action is greatest, they have a minimum of knowledge. By the time they have garnered sufficient knowledge, the scope for decisive action is likely to have vanished. In the 1930s, British leaders were too unsure about Hitler's objectives … to act on the basis of assessments which they could not prove. The tuition fee for learning about Hitler's true nature was tens of millions of graves stretching from one end of Europe to the other."

President Bush is about in the same position as those British leaders in the 1930s. The semi-public case for Iraq's likely bomb relies substantially on the testimony of a few Iraqi defectors. Most prominent is Khidir Hamza, called "Saddam's bomb-maker." Those who find him credible believe he was the mastermind behind Saddam's nuclear project, whose insights justify the need for military action. But his detractors point out that he left Iraq in 1990 and that he claims first-hand knowledge of matters he probably got second-hand.

But then, his detractors such as former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who used to be anti-Saddam and is now something of a Saddam apologist are accused of getting too cozy with Saddam.

Similar arguments of bias or second-hand knowledge are assigned to other intelligence sources such as Adnan Saeed al-Haideri (the Iraqi engineer who claims that Saddam is building secret chemical and biological weapons factories) and James Woolsey (the former Clinton CIA director, who advocates prompt action against Iraq).

Iraq is a hard country for our intelligence to penetrate. Although Iraq has been a top intelligence target for us since 1989, 10 years later (1999) the CIA privately admitted that, regarding Iraq's Presidential Affairs Department (one of its eight intelligence organizations), "We don't know exactly what it is, but it's Saddam's secret unit."

Unless Mr. Bush has conclusive secret information (and the reports out of European and Middle East embassies here in Washington are that their governments have not yet been presented with such conclusive evidence), he will have to make the Iraqi invasion decision only on the basis of suspicion.

Moreover, Iraq is only one of the geographic areas from which the terrorists may get or be hiding nukes or biological weapons. Al Qaeda has bases in up to 60 countries. All those places may have to be searched (perhaps without permission of the host governments). And it may be that we will be chasing a chimera. Perhaps there is no imminent nuclear or biological threat?

These are the terrible calculations that the president will have to make in the coming months: go to war and risk destabilizing much of the world (and possibly killing many young American soldiers) without knowing for certain whether it was all necessary; or, inaction resulting in the annihilation of a major American city, because he didn't have enough proof of danger until it was too late. Of course, one can always hope for the third possibility inaction followed by … nothing.


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