What should be made of the nuclear scare that George Bush deftly slipped into his Thanksgiving Day remarks to U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia?

In the course of an otherwise predictable pep talk, the president warned his listeners that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein might be closer to acquiring nuclear weapons than many intelligence analysts believed.Recent opinion surveys have indicated a steadily growing reticence on the home front about the employment of armed force to drive Saddam out of Kuwait just to restore its vital oil reserves to the more dependable proprietorship of the Sabah royal family.

But when the N-word is added to these surveys, most Americans grimly support the military option as a first resort to deny Saddam any chance of developing or acquiring nuclear weaponry.

Did the president exaggerate the pace of Iraq's nuclear quest to enhance public acceptance of his quantum military buildup in the Persian Gulf?

Or does Bush know more about Saddam's nuclear development than has been reflected in published intelligence estimates?

While it would be offensive, but nevertheless more reassuring, to assume Bush was playing callously on the public's dread of Iraq as a nuclear threat, it would be flat-out stupid to dismiss the possibility that he knows whereof he speaks.

The Nov. 18 issue of the New York Times published a comprehensive report, based on U.S. and allied intelligence sources, indicating Iraq was no closer than two years away from nuclear weapons, by Israeli estimates, and more likely to be still as much as 10 years short of the goal, by U.S. calculations.

Though it escaped notice here, however, London's Sunday Times of the same date reported Bush had learned that Iraq could have nuclear bombs in its arsenal as early as two months from now!

So which account should you believe?

Based on the two newspapers' recent records for credibility, you'd have to take the N.Y. Times - if it weren't for the fact that the British paper credited the report received by Bush to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. And the DIA has not denied it.

The DIA, which should not be confused with the higher-profile CIA, is the U.S. Defense Department's top-secret intelligence-gathering wing. Unlike the CIA, the DIA does not have a suspect reputation in international intelligence circles, because it has not been compromised by occasional propaganda chores.

The Iraqis are known to have salvaged some of the 93 percent enriched uranium they had when that 1981 Israeli air strike took out their French-built Osirak reactor. They are now also extracting their own uranium from a mine near northern Mosul.

As for claims that Saddam's engineers couldn't produce weapons-grade fuel without first building a centrifuge plant that U.S. spy satellites would easily spot, don't bet the Saudi environment on it.

According to allied intelligence sources, those eyes-in-the-sky have been occasionally confounded by late radar trackings of Iraqi jets that seem to materialize from out of nowhere - a phenomenon suggesting to analysts that Saddam could have at least one base beneath the desert floor.

So don't automatically conclude Bush's Thanksgiving Day warning was bogus.

If the Iraqis can hide an air base under the sand, why not a centrifuge for nuclear weapons fuel?