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The Kerry-Kennedy Line

It's a good thing that John Kerry and Ted Kennedy lost the last time they took a stand on Saddam Hussein.

12:00 AM, Sep 28, 2004 • By DANIEL MCKIVERGAN
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IN A SPEECH Monday at George Washington University, Senator Ted Kennedy accused the president of conducting an Iraq policy that has made it more likely that al Qaeda could launch a "nuclear 9/11." According to Kennedy, American military resources were needlessly diverted to the war in Iraq rather than being deployed against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. But General Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, disagrees. "Operations in Afghanistan did not suffer as a result of the one in Iraq," Franks said in a CNN interview last month.

Nevertheless, Kennedy charged that "the war in Iraq has made the mushroom cloud more likely, not less likely.'' Of course, he is entitled to his view. No doubt his claim will be vigorously debated in the coming days, along with the senator's message that somehow he and his fellow critics would be far more ruthless going after bin Laden than the current administration. So with talk of mushroom clouds while Saddam Hussein awaits trial for crimes against humanity, this may be a good time to revisit just how close Saddam came to acquiring nuclear weapons over a decade ago.

In 1991, Senators Kennedy and Kerry opposed the resolution authorizing force to eject Saddam from Kuwait. On the Senate floor, Kerry argued that "time is not on Saddam Hussein's side, but ours. Sanctions cost Iraq much, they cost us little." Kennedy likewise declared that "time and patience are on our side, not Saddam Hussein's."

The Kennedy-Kerry position of waiting Saddam out did not prevail and soon after the Senate vote Saddam was ejected from Kuwait. But the war had also revealed something unexpected, a massive, clandestine, nuclear weapons program that had gone undetected by Western intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency until after inspectors had entered Iraq.

On August 11, 1991, the Washington Post reported that:

International inspectors . . . unearthed one of the most important--and disturbing--finds of the post-Cold War era: a huge assembly line for the covert manufacture of equipment to make an Iraqi bomb.

The location of the sophisticated, secret factory for manufacturing hundreds of uranium gas centrifuges was unknown to any foreign intelligence agency despite intense scrutiny and untouched by five weeks of severe aerial bombardment during the Gulf War that supposedly eviscerated the Iraqi nuclear project. As such, it is a monument to the world's ignorance about what a determined bomb-builder such as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein can do.

The factory was a key component in Iraq's elaborate highly redundant and largely secret network of physics, chemistry and metallurgical laboratories, industrial mines, metalworking factories, electrical power generators, nuclear research reactors and radioactive waste processing sites - all aimed at swiftly putting a nuclear weapon in the hands of one of the world's most ruthless leaders.

It turned out that time wasn't on "our side." The Post also reported just how close Saddam came to getting a nuclear bomb:

Despite repeated warnings and Saddam's own public statements, Western experts consistently underestimated Iraq's scientific and technical capabilities. Inspection officials now believe Iraq was only 12 to 18 months from producing its first bomb, not five to 10 years as previously thought.

Thirteen years later, the former head of Iraq's nuclear centrifuge program, Mahdi Obeidi, addressed the current debate on whether Iraq was a "potential threat" in last Sunday's New York Times:

Threat is always a matter of perception, but our nuclear program could have been reinstituted at the snap of Saddam Hussein's fingers. The sanctions and the lucrative oil-for-food program had served as powerful deterrents, but world events--like Iran's current efforts to step up its nuclear ambitions--might well have changed the situation.

Iraqi scientists had the knowledge and the designs needed to jumpstart the program if necessary. And there is no question that we could have done so very quickly. In the late 1980s, we put together the most efficient covert nuclear program the world has ever seen. In about three years, we gained the ability to enrich uranium and nearly become a nuclear threat; we built an effective centrifuge from scratch, even though we started with no knowledge of centrifuge technology. Had Saddam Hussein ordered it and the world looked the other way, we might have shaved months if not years off our previous efforts.

On the issue of deposing Saddam Hussein, Senator John McCain has it right: