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Action Alert 

U.S. Strategists Begin to Favor Threat to Use Nuclear Arms, Dana Milbank,

6 October 2001

Washington - The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York have invigorated national security strategists inside and outside the government who favor using nuclear weapons to deter and respond to chemical or biological attacks.

Conservatives outside the Bush administration have been calling on the administration to make an explicit threat to use nuclear weapons to respond to a biological or chemical attack.

This would change a long-standing U.S. policy of refusing to rule in or rule out use of nuclear weapons in the event of such an attack. So far, at least, senior administration officials have maintained this policy of deliberate ambiguity, though some administration figures appear to be sympathetic to a change that would entail a more specific threat.

A report issued in January by the National Institute for Public Policy declared that ''U.S. nuclear weapons may be necessary" to deter regional powers from using weapons of mass destruction or for ''providing unique targeting capabilities" against such things as buried targets or biological weapons targets.

''Under certain circumstances," the report said, "very severe nuclear threats may be needed to deter any of these potential adversaries.''

Among the report's authors were Stephen Hadley, now deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush; Robert Joseph, the head of proliferation strategy at the National Security Council, and two key defense advisers to Mr. Bush, Stephen Cambone and William Schneider Jr.

Proponents of the shift in policy said the attacks on New York and Washington had affirmed their views.

''Sept. 11 really underscores the need to look at a full range of flexible options," said David Smith, a military consultant who was an author of the institute's report. "What we were trying to get at there is we don't believe the current arsenal of the United States is persuasively deterrent to all comers.''

Many Bush administration officials have endorsed the notion of switching to smaller nuclear arms that could be used for, among other things, hitting chemical and biological weapons sites and targeting such figures as Osama bin Laden or Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, who hide in deep underground bunkers.

A report in June 2000 by Stephen Younger, who has been named to head the Threat Reduction Agency at the Defense Department, called for smaller nuclear weapons as part of a rethinking of the role of nuclear weapons.

Though a shift in the arsenal would take years to implement, an early sign will be the Nuclear Posture Review under way in the Pentagon and due to Congress by year's end. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, in his confirmation hearing on Sept. 13, said that deterrence against weapons of mass destruction was ''a critical component'' of the review.M

He also pointed out that the military already had "a number of low-yield weapons in the current stockpile."

Another author of the institute's report, William Van Cleave of Southwest Missouri State University, said the review would argue "that we need to regain some capability for some low-yield nuclear weapons."

For the past decade or so, U.S. leaders have been deliberately ambiguous about using nuclear weapons to respond to a chemical and biological threat. One example was after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

When Dick Cheney was defense secretary, he said in December 1990, "Were Saddam Hussein foolish enough to use weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. response would be absolutely overwhelming and it would be devastating."

Administration officials said later that he was not implying a nuclear threat.

Some arms control experts say they believe that the Bush administration's statements so far already go beyond past administrations' ambiguity.


"That is an implied threat," said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. "They've crossed the line or they're at the line by implying the possible use."

Opponents said nuclear threats would encourage nuclear proliferation and worry friendly governments. Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said, "It would create its own crisis, fracture the alliance and have no military purpose."

Dana Milbank, Washington Post Service
Copyright 2001 The International Herald Tribune

Index page on Response to attacks in US


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