"The murder of 25 million people in the mid-2010s by the self-proclaimed Agent of God, who created the genetically modified Congo virus, finally woke up the world to the realization that an individual acting alone could create and use a weapon of mass destruction."

Science fiction or scientific intelligence? This horrific scenario is perhaps the most frightening, though hardly the only one, in a series of research analyses that were published this week by the National Intelligence Council, a "center of strategic thinking" in the U.S. government, which reports directly to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The scenario is part of the council's 2020 project, in which "national intelligence officers" consider possible developments in the near future. (The National Intelligence Council Web site can be accessed through www.cia.com)

Last month, experts thought, wrote and argued about these issues in a workshop whose results were by chance made available to the public in the same week in which Saddam Hussein was captured by American forces in Iraq. In capturing Saddam, President George W. Bush showed how to deal with a pesky fly: You demolish the house in which the fly is buzzing and then scour every corner until the fly is found. That's the advantage a superpower has over small, sophisticated countries that are trying to kill an enemy leader who is trying to elude it.

A superpower can conquer the leader's country, station more than 100,000 troops there (the size of the entire Israel Defense Forces in routine times) and wait patiently until the leader falls into its hands. Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, likes to say that with the use of logic it's possible to assess how a caterpillar is likely to develop. However, a "leap of the imagination" is needed in order to forecast that the caterpillar will eventually metamorphose into a butterfly. The difficulty in viewing rulers like Saddam from the outside lies in the tendency to categorize them alongside ordinary leaders of regimes - a king here, a president there, a prime minister over there. This type of categorization justifies an aversion to focusing on the leader in personal terms, because on the face of it, today he's in power but tomorrow someone else will take over, and the world must not be allowed to become an anarchic hunting ground, like Tel Aviv in the era of the wars of the crime kings.

The exceptions are rare, but nevertheless oblige a further perusal of the subject, even in democratic regimes. The followers of David Ben-Gurion believe that if his heart had failed at the age of 60, in 1946, like the heart of Eliahu Golomb, the defense minister of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine), who died at the age of 55, the State of Israel would not have come into being in May 1948. The other leaders would have been afraid to decide on their own.

Within one year, between October 1981 and September 1982, two Arab leaders who agreed to peace with Israel were assassinated. The first case, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, had no impact on the relations between the two countries. But the second case, the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, spelled the end of the Israeli bet on Lebanon. In that case, the Syrians, who sent the assassin, achieved their political goal.

Ayatollah Khomeini was essential to foment the revolution in Iran against the regime of the shah, and perhaps also a decade later, in Iran's readiness for a cease-fire against Iraq - but not in every other stage in the life of Iran under the Islamic revolution, which continues to exist a decade and a half after Khomeini's death.

This is not the case with Saddam Hussein. The rapid series of coups in Baghdad beginning in the summer of 1958 - led by Generals Qassem and Aref, and then another Aref, and finally Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and his deputy Saddam - at first blurred the difference between Saddam and his predecessor and, as anticipated, also his successor. Saddam, though, was a special case, both in terms of his personal background, as a hit-man who sprang from the grass roots, and in his aggressiveness, which stood out in the wars he launched on Iran and Kuwait. Since the end of World War II his only competitors in brutality have been Pol Pot and his colleagues in the leadership of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

At the center of the dispute that followed the Gulf War of 1991 was the question of what was better for Israel in Baghdad: a weak Saddam or a strong Saddam. Ehud Barak, who was deputy chief of staff in the 1991 war and became chief of staff a month after its conclusion, was the most ardent supporter of an attempt to kill Saddam. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who was director of Military Intelligence during the war and deputy chief of staff at its end, maintained that the risk to Israel would be greater of, with the blessing of the Americans, the Saudis and others, the ruler who succeeded Saddam would be released from the global sanctions regime while continuing to pursue a policy basically similar to Saddam's. The dispute was confined solely to the defense establishment - General Staff, Military Intelligence and the Mossad espionage agency - with the knowledge of only the defense minister and the prime minister. There was no National Security Council at the time to air the issue, and the Foreign Ministry was not privy to the evaluation of the political implications of assassinating Saddam.

Yitzhak Shamir, who was prime minister until the summer of 1992, explained some years later what his considerations were in the affair of planning the assassination of the Iraqi ruler, and the very small list of those who were in on the secret. "It depends who the foreign minister is," he said. In his unity government with Shimon Peres (finance minister) and Yitzhak Rabin (defense minister), the foreign minister was Moshe Arens. It's likely that Arens, Shamir's political partner in the leadership of the Likud and a former ambassador to Washington, would have been invited to a consultation on a subject of this kind. After Peres' failure to enlist the Shas party in a coup against Shamir, in the spring of 1990, Arens moved to the Defense Ministry. The Foreign Ministry went to David Levy. "It wasn't worth revealing [the plan] to him," Shamir said, as though protecting Levy from the danger of the secret.

If Shamir had won the elections in 1992, Arens, Barak and Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit would have had a chance of persuading him to approve the assassination project, despite the reservations voiced by Shahak (for whom Shamir had as high a regard as an officer as he did for Barak) and by the director of Military Intelligence, Uri Saguy. After his retirement, Shamir, sitting in his Tel Aviv office, once drew up a private accounting for and against the Saddam project: For - the line of action favored by Shamir from the time of his activity in the pre-state Lehi underground organization: assassinations of key individuals, whether in substance or symbol, including Lord Moyne and Count Folke Bernadotte. Against - the leader of an Arab state such as Saddam in the 1990s could not be compared to a British representative in the Middle East and a Swedish mediator on behalf of the United Nations in the 1940s. For - Saddam is an avowed foe not only of Israel but of the Americans as well, and in March 1991 they were negligent in completing the mission and missed an opportunity to get rid of him - if not by military means which would exceed the authorization granted to (the first) President Bush by Congress and the UN Security Council, then at least by means of actively supporting the Shiite and Kurdish uprising in Iraq. Against - for exactly that reason, it's best to leave the work to the Americans. Advance feelers were put out to them in contacts with the director of the CIA at the time, Robert Gates. For - if the Americans flinch from an assassination, Israel has the right to hit Saddam in retaliation for the missiles he rained down on the country in 1991, and as proof of the credibility of Israel's warning that it would react in a method, timing and place of its choosing, and not at the choice of the aggressor (Iraq in 1991 tried to get Israel to react, in an attempt to break apart the coalition against it).

In June 1992, as the elite reconnaissance unit Sayeret Matkal engaged in its preparations to assassinate Saddam, Rabin returned to the Defense Ministry two years after leaving it and to the premiership after a 15-year absence. Rabin had not balked at threatening Arab regimes and assaulting Arab leaders. In 1966, as chief of staff, he pushed for escalation that would topple the regime in Damascus, in which Hafez Assad was the Number 2 official as defense minister and commander of the air force. The unexpected result - which fomented a mental crisis in Rabin - was the Six-Day War.

In October 1995, a week and a half before his assassination, and in the wake of importuning by Mossad head Shavit, Rabin authorized the Mossad to assassinate the leader of Islamic Jihad, Fat'hi Shqaki, in Malta. Rabin agonized, wasn't enthusiastic, was apprehensive - but gave the authorization. These are the open cases.

If it had not been for the disaster at the IDF base at Tze'elim, in the Negev (on November 5, 1992, five soldiers from Sayeret Matkal were killed during an exercise that was part of the preparations for the assassination of Saddam Hussein) would Rabin have given Barak the go-ahead? As in the Shamir period, the answer lies largely in Washington. Rabin's support was limited for operations that held out large political and security risks, and even that reserved support was given only after other alternatives had been tried. His approval for the Entebbe rescue operation in 1976 (Rabin was then prime minister) was given after the intelligence picture changed and an operational solution was formulated. As a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, far from government, Rabin objected to certain aspects of the decision by Menachem Begin, in 1981, to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor, though he hinted that the envelope of the decision (Begin's political utilitarianism and Israel declaring that it was responsible) bothered him more than the substance.

Rabin preferred the re-election of the Republican George Bush to the unknown quantity of the Democrat Bill Clinton. That preference, which was obvious in the few months of the Bush-Rabin era before the U.S. elections, created bad blood between Rabin and the new president, who took the oath of office in January 1993. The tension was not dissipated until Rabin's visit to Washington in March.

Clinton's victory over Bush was known late on November 3, 1992. The exercise at Tze'elim took place a little more than a day later, at dawn on November 5. If the exercise had concluded successfully and without casualties; and if Saddam's ailing uncle, who raised Saddam and whom the Iraqi leader looked on as his father, had been gathered unto his fathers in December (Saddam's assassination was to have taken place at the uncle's funeral) in the period between Bush and Clinton, Rabin might possibly have agreed to take advantage of the twilight period. That's what he did - and was burned - when he authorized the deportation of 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists to Lebanon in December 1992; and that's what Bush did when he approved American intervention in Somalia after his defeat at the polls.

It's possible that Rabin would have authorized the mission, though not necessarily probable. Later testimonies by Rabin, under the impact of the failure of the exercise, cannot reliably reflect his judgment as it would have been in the absence of the accident. Beginning in the summer of 1993, Rabin was preoccupied with give and take with Syria, with Operation Accountability in Lebanon and with the Oslo process. By then it was too late.

Clinton, having got a firm grasp of the situation, tried once or twice to assassinate Saddam by means of the CIA and Iraqi collaborators, but not with full strength. Bush (the son) had none of the inhibitions of his predecessor. But American intelligence suffers from a chronic weakness in its ability to decipher messages in Arabic and to get human sources to talk. That requires speakers of the local lingo at mother-tongue level who are also well versed in military terminology and can get a security clearance, too. In the 1991 war, all the reserve soldiers in the U.S. Army who matched the terms of the tender were sent to Saudi Arabia in the first of the two corps that were airlifted to the gulf. The intelligence officers in the second corps were at a complete loss until about 300 Kuwaiti students broke off their studies and volunteered to help; they were inducted into the Kuwaiti army as sergeants.

In the current hostilities, the pursuit of Saddam was shunted aside in favor of two other priorities: the search for weapons of mass destruction and the security of the occupation army. In the past few months, as U.S. forces approached the mark of 500 killed in action, security became the top priority. An operation by the 1st Brigade of the 4th Division in Tikrit against those who downed a Black Hawk helicopter was considered more urgent and more essential than the continued hunt for Saddam.

In the operational order last Saturday, the same brigade, beefed up with special forces, was given the assignment of attacking in order to kill or apprehend a "high-value target." The goal, from which the mission derived, was to defeat the enemy forces. It was not by chance that the killing option was mentioned before the capture option. That's how the American orders in Iraq are worded these days; that's how Saddam's sons were killed. A wanted person dies, and lives only by second priority, if he surrenders and lets himself be taken. On the assumption that the Bush administration will be in power in the United States for another five years, until January 2009, that will continue to be official American policy until close to the appearance of the person - a Hitler or a Stalin without middlemen - a mass murderer who will be able to realize his fantasies by pressing a button or detonating a test tube, without the need for a Nazi or Bolshevik apparatus to execute his orders.

The Migron migraine

Avi Dichter, the head of the Shin Bet security service, tripped up this week during his address to the Herzliya Conference. Like many in the top ranks of the political and security establishments, Dichter has recourse to distorted personal accounting, which seeks to place a high numerical value on Israelis only because of the relative size of their country. According to Dichter, who wanted to illustrate the impact of the killing, the 900 Israelis killed in the confrontation with the Palestinians are the equivalent of 40 times as many (50 would be more correct) American victims.

By Dichter's logic, if we continue to follow it until it's stood on its head, only about 60 pretend-Israelis were killed in the Twin Towers attack, and not 3,000 Americans; and, on the other hand, we have to double the number of Palestinians who were killed in order to get the equivalent in terms of their population ratio vis-a-vis Israel.

The numbers are harsh enough without inflating them meaninglessly. A person killed is a person killed is a person killed, and the reaction of a country doesn't depend solely on numbers. Five soldiers were also killed in the first Tze'elim disaster, which occurred during the tenure of chief of staff Dan Shomron, but the public interest was less than in the case of the second Tze'elim disaster during the Barak period.

The killing of one Emil Grunzweig - who was killed in 1983, when a grenade was thrown at a Peace Now demonstration in Jerusalem - was enough to demonstrate the lethal nature of political hostility in the country. There is no need for a large number of casualties among security forces evacuating unauthorized outposts in order to jolt the land to its foundations. Sources in the IDF said this week that this is a concrete danger, especially in the case of the Migron outpost near Ramallah. The settlers there are armed, of course, but they aren't the only ones: Central Command had a general report - which, according to officers, mentioned neither names nor numbers - that soldiers in regular service have also posted themselves at Migron to fight a possible evacuation attempt.

On Wednesday, the IDF, recognizing the severity of the situation and awaiting political decisions and legal maneuvers, was still trying to decide who will command the evacuation operation: the commander of the Binyamin region brigade, Colonel Roni Noma, who has previously commanded the Shildag unit, the undercover Duvdevan unit and a Paratroops battalion; the commander of an artillery group, Colonel Yoav Har-Even, who was the bureau chief of the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, when Mofaz was chief of staff; or the commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, Brigadier General Gazi Eisenkott.

The fear is that when troops arrive to evacuate them, some of those in the outpost will not restrain themselves and will open fire at their comrades-in-arms. If that happens, Migron will become synonymous not with a bothersome headache that was treated and passed, but with the steep slope of a slide into civil war.