WASHINGTON — Washington--THANKS TO recent, independent investigations by three news organizations, we now have a far better fix on a central question facing military and diplomatic policy-makers in the Persian Gulf: What is the status of Saddam Hussein's quest for nuclear weapons?
For the first two-thirds of this year, most Western intelligence evaluators dismissed the Iraqi potential for producing atomic weapons without outside help as likely only "within five to 10 years."
Complacent estimates now appear to have been in error. Stimulated to re-evaluate by the interdiction at borders of parts being smuggled into Iraq, by intercepts about transactions between Brazil and Egypt and Iraq, and provoked by facts presented and questions raised in this space, world spookery in November came up with a revised consensus timetable: less than five years for deliverable bombs, and a crude device available for explosion within eight months.
The "crude device" -- which could be a land mine or truck bomb on a grand scale -- was based on enriched uranium known to be in Iraqi hands and ostentatiously offered for international inspection in Baghdad.
(Its seals could be broken and made into a bomb within a few months; a second cache of 80 percent enriched uranium provided secretly by the Soviet Union in the past might be made into a follow-up terrorist threat.)
The more fearsome weaponry, an arsenal that could be placed as warheads on long-range missiles, would rejigger the world's power balances. What could be learned about that?
Curiously, intelligence agencies are more limited than supposed many investigations. The CIA cannot walk into a German plant and interrogate the centrifuge expert who helped solve a production problem in Iraq's Factory 10. Not even German authorities are inclined to do that.
But journalists can; given a few leads and an invitation to compete on the most worrisome story of the day, they can probe and publish what expensive satellites don't show. That's what has been happening lately.
Walter Busse, a German scientist who worked for MAN Technologie in Munich, was identified here as a good man to see about uranium-enrichment gas centrifuges in Iraq. Reporters for the Sunday Times of London and the New York Times subsequently banged on that company's door.
On Dec. 16 the London paper's "Insight" team published a detailed account of the bomb-acquisition scheme, including an interview with Busse's longtime colleague Bruno Stemmler.
In 1987 he was hired by Iraq to examine a centrifuge laboratory complete with equipment secretly assembled from a half-dozen nations, and to give expert advice to Iraqi technicians how to extract U-235 from "yellowcake" ore.
A year later Stemmler accompanied Busse to Iraq to help solve a production problem at Factory 10, near Samarra, where the centrifuges were being fabricated that would be used to enrich uranium.
Trucks from that factory regularly head south to the fortified nuclear facility at Tuwaitha, the Sunday Times reports, where it speculates a "cascade" of centrifuges is being assembled.
Tracked to his home in Bernau in Bavaria, Busse, 78, presented the industrial version of the Eichmann defense: "If you are producing parts, you don't know what they are parts for." He was only filling orders.
Stemmler, 57, now suspended by his company, was also visited by a reporter from the Bonn bureau of the New York Times. "I did not betray any secrets," he insists.
The German news magazine Der Spiegel, which reported that the U.S. recently gave Bonn a list of 50 companies in the Iraqi procurement ring, writes that investigators do not believe Stemmler's protestations.
A New York Times reporter followed the yellowcake road to Brazil, where Hugo Piva -- just back from Iraq, where he assisted in missile design -- denies helping provide the Iraqi nuclear program with uranium ore from the high-tech center in Sao Paulo. We'll see.
All this newsgathering activity tells us much about what the Iraqis have and where it is; it also lights fires under prosecutors like Joseph Whitley, the latest U.S. attorney in Atlanta to fail to pursue the $3 billion financing of Iraqi purchases in the Lavoro bank case.
The Sunday Times of London puts Iraq's nuclear weapons capability at two years; the New York Times sticks to a broad "within the decade." Considering what we now know of the appointments in Samarra in 1987, I'd say the Saddam bombs would be ready to drop on us in early 1993.