A lot is riding on Iraqi defectors

A good rule of thumb in dealing with a Saddam Hussein type is that weapons information freely acknowledged is only intended to steer you away from more damaging information.

And so, when the dictator's senior weapons adviser, Gen. Amir al-Saadi, confirmed to a news conference with great detail that Iraq may have been close to developing a Nagasaki-strength nuclear bomb until the program was destroyed in an American bombing in January, 1991, you had to wonder what possibly still-existing weapons he didn't want to talk about.

Specifically, the chemical and biological programs, including anthrax and nerve gas that Iraq claims to have eliminated. On that subject, General Saadi was much less forthcoming. Iraq's 12,000-page declaration gives no compelling evidence of such destruction. Saadi smoothly explained that all the documentation was destroyed along with the programs. That is hard to credit.

It becomes increasingly clear that the Iraqi declaration will not settle the issue of whether there are banned weapons still hidden away. Surprise inspections are not likely to unearth the truth. America's principal hope for getting at the truth rests in inducing Iraqi scientists and technicians to be interviewed outside their country.

Saadi said the Iraqi government would not object to such interviews, but suggested that they could take place in Iraq. Vividly remembered is Mr. Hussein's son-in-law, Gen. Hussein Kamal, who defected to Jordan in 1995 and talked to the CIA about weapons development. He was lured back to Iraq, where he and his whole family were slaughtered.

Chief UN inspector Hans Blix seems reserved about organizing such out-of-the-country interviews, saying, "We are not going to abduct anyone." But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the United States attaches "great importance" to the interview program. The Bush administration is apparently willing to arrange asylum, and a lot more, for potential defectors.

Without much concrete proof of existing Iraqi weapons programs, the US has a lot riding on the defection plan. So does Hussein.

"Material breach" - the code words for war or peace - may hinge on the success of America's new witness protection program.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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