FOUR WEEKS ago, when so-called experts were confident that Saddam Hussein would not have a complete nuclear weapons system for at least five to 10 years, I presumed in this space to task our intelligence agency with a much more specific mission: Find out how soon Iraq would be able detonate a simple, "dirty" device.
Last week, we got the answer direct from the president: "Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam's atomic program in years," Bush told our troops, "may be seriously underestimating the reality of that situation and the gravity of the threat." His press spokesman defined that timetable as "within months."
In Senate Armed Services Committee hearings Wednesday, Sen. Edward Kennedy -- privy to new intelligence data similar to that given the president -- was equally specific about the crude device: ". . . the best estimates, I imagine, are eight or nine months, possibly, under the best of circumstances."
This tells us that Saddam will probably be able to set off the largest truck bomb or land mine ever made next summer, with at least a deleterious effect on the local environment.
That has no military significance, of course, say experts far from ground zero. No argument; one crude device would be a suicidal demonstration, not a serious means of turning back an attack.
But the new estimate also tells us this: Iraq's all-out nuclear weapons quest is a fact, not a theory -- and autonomous, not subject to blockade. If he can explode a test device by one means in months, it would be dangerously foolish to think he could not explode a weapon built by another means within a few years.
What has been the reaction to this new information?
Most people interested in survival are willing to take out a madman with two invasions and a million deaths on his record -- before he can use missile-mounted nuclear weaponry on us.
The reaction of some, however, is fury at any public airing of the undeniable threat.
The president and top Cabinet officials stand accused by the Wisconsin law professor Gary Milhollin, television's nuclear Norman Ornstein, of manipulating the data to whip up war fever. (Milhollin properly worries about Iraq's passing nuclear material to terrorists.)
How dare the president share what he knows with the public; patience-mongers suggest that nuclear danger be denigrated lest it lead to public acceptance of the need to strike pre-nuclear Iraq.
The truth is we need more information about the Saddam bomb, not less; more reporting to advance what we know, not to rehash outdated guesses about "how soon."
To do my bit this week, I called Munich's M.A.N. Technologie, producer of the G-1 uranium-enrichment gas centrifuge. A spokeswoman confirmed that Walter Busse, a West German scientist who helped develop missiles in Brazil, had worked for M.A.N. on the G-1. The company denies doing business with Iraq, but has dealt with Brazil, which did nuclear business with Iraq.
I'm trying to reach Busse to ask if anyone from H&H Metalform, which makes machines that make centrifuge rotors, had inquired about plans to build a G-1. Or if he could speculate about why the Swiss-Iraqi company Schmiedemeccanica was caught by German customs trying to ship ultracentrifuge end caps, made of 350-grade maraging steel, to Iraq this summer.
With this, I would check out the German company Inwako to see if the Iraqis had machinery to fabricate samarium-cobalt magnets, needed to stabilize the centrifuge's rotor. And then find out how many computerized lathes to produce thousands of centrifuges were sold by Schaublin S.A. of Switzerland, a nation with much to explain.
Weapons material produced by such equipment requires activation by a neutron gun.
Not all calls produce results: Kaman Scientific in Colorado Springs, Colo., recently sold its neutron generating business to Manfred Frey of that city, and that former employee of Oak Ridge and Los Alamos insists he has long refused invitations to return to Iraq to repair its continuous radiation generator.
Other sources of neutron guns are Sodern in France and Haefala in Switzerland. The point: Survival demands more than guesswork.
To pinpoint the developmental state of the Saddam bomb takes legwork, coordination, a desire to know the timing and patterns of purchase.
World competition is invited; it beats waiting for unconfirmable presidential hints and then listening to experts from think tanks mutter about manipulation.