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Search for the 'smoking gun'

By Wolf Blitzer

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Last September 8, I interviewed President Bush's National Security Adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice. I was pressing her on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities.

"We know that he has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon," she told me. "And we know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought -- maybe six months from a crude nuclear device."

Dr. Rice then said something that was ominous and made headlines around the world.

"The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

I thought of those comments this week following the statement from the chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, acknowledging that no "smoking gun" has been found yet since the resumption of the weapons inspections. Still, Blix did not offer Iraq a clean bill of health.

"The absence of smoking guns and the prompt access which we have had so far, and which is most welcome, is no guarantee that prohibited stocks or activities could not exist at other sites, whether above ground, underground or in mobile units" Blix said, insisting they need more time to continue their inspections.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer offered this assessment: "The problem with guns that are hidden is you can't see their smoke."

For months, many hardliners in the Bush administration have expressed fear that the inspectors might never find any prohibited weapons. They have warned that the Iraqis are very good at concealing weapons. They also note that the Iraqis had four years to hide them -- between the end of 1998 and last November, when the inspections resumed.

I think it is fair to say this: If Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief nuclear inspector, tell the U.N. Security Council on January 27 that they still have no "smoking gun" and need more time, perhaps months, to complete their inspections, the Bush administration will be hard pressed to order U.S. military strikes against Iraq. That is, unless the Bush administration comes out publicly with that "smoking gun," if they have it.

We shall see.

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