How come one general tells something about U.S. war plans in the Persian Gulf and gets sent to the cellar like a bad dog, while another general spills the beans about our unreadiness and it gets confirmed by the secretary of defense?

One may have frightened Saddam Hussein. In September, Gen. Michael Dugan, erstwhile Air Force chief of staff, said we would carpet-bomb Baghdad and make a point of getting Saddam and his mistress. But the administration at that moment did not want to scare Saddam -- even though last week President Bush warned him he would "get his ass kicked" in any hostilities.

Dugan's offense, it seems, was to reveal information that could have come only from Israeli intelligence -- hard as it may be to believe that only a spy could know Saddam is a one-man show and that knocking him off would "decapitate" Iraq.

No one specifically said that what Dugan said was not true, just that he should not have said it. Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney fumed that Dugan "showed poor judgment at a sensitive time." National security adviser Brent Scowcroft huffed that "Gen. Dugan is not in the chain of command and he does not speak for the administration."

Actually, Cheney said just about the same thing as the general, but in Pentagonese: "Should there be a provocation, it would be appropriate to hold at risk targets -- assets, if you will -- that Saddam holds dear, and specifically, assets inside Iraq."

By using the word "mistress" instead of "assets he holds dear," Dugan probably ruffled the sensibilities of those who object to heavy bombing because of civilian casualties. We are eyebrow-deep in sensibilities in this psy-war phase, although the sensibilities are mostly those of Saudi Arabia, a nation we have undertaken to defend from Iraqi aggression despite the doubts of the fundamentalist Islamic clergy that we are pure enough to do the job.

We went so far as to classify a Christmas Day Bob Hope show in case the mullahs might find something gross in the utterances of an infidel entertaining infidel troops, whose presence the mullahs can barely tolerate.

Whatever his crime, Dugan is paying the price. He is down in the basement of the Defense Department doing the lowly job of reviewing officers' report cards and trying to guess the needs of future pilots. One need they obviously won't have is to level with the press. The general before his fall advocated more "openness with reporters."

Last week, Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller was notably open with reporters, but fate and the top brass have been kinder and gentler with him. He still has his job as deputy commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, despite the fact that he told reporters the United States "will not be ready for combat activities" on Jan. 15, the deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.

The White House grumbled at this indiscretion, saying they might not be ready for "all contingencies." There were learned, frowning articles from the national security theologians saying that Waller had "undermined" the Bush policy, which is to threaten Saddam with "a terrible swift sword."

Quite marvelously, nonetheless, a week after the flap, Secretary Cheney came back from one of his periodic trips to the gulf -- where he brightened Christmas for the troops by telling them that war is "inevitable" -- and reportedly told the president that Waller is right: the troops won't be ready until February.

Baffled Americans are beginning to wonder if maybe this news is not for them, that they are eavesdropping on a message intended solely for Baghdad, a bit of misinformation that Waller was ordered to deliver. Surely, there is a discretion alert among our commanders after what happened to Dugan.

The conspiracy theory is hard to avoid. Maybe our high command wants Saddam to think there is sand in the gears of the mighty military machine we have dispatched to the desert. Maybe we want to soothe him into a sense of superiority so that he will stop mobilizing armies, stop holding air raid drills and decide he will try to schedule last-ditch negotiations with Secretary of State James A. Baker III for Valentine's Day.

Do they think he will listen to Waller, to Cheney, and say, "Aha! They are weak, I am strong, I will attack." Maybe we have contingency plans to surround and engulf him. Who knows?

If there are hostilities, we have to hope they are better managed than these bluffs and feints, which are on the transparent and even clumsy side. The president keeps telling us Saddam is another Hitler. Why then are we treating him like a not-too-bright 8-year-old?