The Washington Times

Bush approves nuclear response
Nicholas Kralev

Published January 31, 2003


      A classified document signed by President Bush specifically
allows for the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological or
chemical attacks, apparently changing a decades-old U.S. policy of
deliberate ambiguity, it was learned by The Washington Times.
      "The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves
the right to respond with overwhelming force - including potentially
nuclear weapons - to the use of [weapons of mass destruction] against
the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies," the
document, National Security Presidential Directive 17, set out on
Sept. 14 last year.
      A similar statement is included in the public version of the
directive, which was released Dec. 11 as the National Strategy to
Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction and closely parallels the
classified document. However, instead of the phrase "including
potentially nuclear weapons," the public text says, "including
through resort to all of our options."
      A White House spokesman declined to comment when asked about the
document last night and neither confirmed nor denied its existence.
      A senior administration official said, however, that using the
words "nuclear weapons" in the classified text gives the military and
other officials, who are the document's intended audience, "a little
more of an instruction to prepare all sorts of options for the
president," if need be.
       The official, nonetheless, insisted that ambiguity remains "the
heart and soul of our nuclear policy."
      In the classified version, nuclear forces are designated as the
main part of any U.S. deterrent, and conventional capabilities
"complement" the nuclear weapons.
      "Nuclear forces alone ... cannot ensure deterrence against
[weapons of mass destruction] and missiles," the original paragraph
says. "Complementing nuclear force with an appropriate mix of
conventional response and defense capabilities, coupled with
effective intelligence, surveillance, interdiction and domestic
law-enforcement capabilities, reinforces our overall deterrent
posture against [weapons of mass destruction] threats."
      Before it released the text publicly, the White House changed
that same paragraph to: "In addition to our conventional and nuclear
response and defense capabilities, our overall deterrent posture
against [weapons of mass destruction] threats is reinforced by
effective intelligence, surveillance, interdiction and domestic
law-enforcement capabilities."
      The classified document, a copy of which was shown to The
Washington Times, is known better by its abbreviation NSPD 17, as
well as Homeland Security Presidential Directive 4.
      The disclosure of the classified text follows newspaper reports
that the planning for a war with Iraq focuses on using nuclear arms
not only to defend U.S. forces but also to "pre-empt" deeply buried
Iraqi facilities that could withstand conventional explosives.
      For decades, the U.S. government has maintained a deliberately
vague nuclear policy, expressed in such language as "all options
open" and "not ruling anything in or out." As recently as last
weekend, Bush administration officials used similar statements in
public, consciously avoiding the word "nuclear."
      "I'm not going to put anything on the table or off the table,"
White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said on NBC's "Meet the
Press," adding that the United States will use "whatever means
necessary" to protect its citizens and the world from a "holocaust."
      But in the paragraphs marked "S" for "secret," the Sept. 14
directive clearly states that nuclear weapons are part of the
"overwhelming force" that Washington might use in response to a
chemical or biological attack.
      Former U.S. officials and arms control experts with knowledge of
policies of the previous administrations declined to say whether such
specific language had been used before, for fear of divulging
classified information. But they conceded that differences exist.
      "This shows that there is a somewhat greater willingness in this
administration to use a nuclear response to other [non-nuclear
weapons of mass destruction] attacks, although that's not a wholesale
departure from previous administrations," one former senior official
      Even a slight change can make a big difference. Because it is
now "official policy, it means that the United States will actively
consider the nuclear option" in a military conflict, said Daryl
Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
      "This document is far more explicit about the use of nuclear
weapons to deter and possibly defeat biological and chemical
attacks," he said. "If someone dismisses it, that would question the
entire logic of the administration's national security strategy
against [weapons of mass destruction]."
      Mr. Kimball said U.S. nuclear weapons "should only be used to
deter nuclear attacks by others."
      A senior official who served in the Clinton administration said
there would still have to be a new evaluation before any decision was
made on the use of nuclear weapons.
      "What this document means is that they have thought through the
consequences, including in the abstract, but it doesn't necessarily
prejudge any specific case."
      Baker Spring, a national security fellow at the Heritage
Foundation, said the classified language "does not undermine the
basic posture of the deterrent and does not commit the United States
to a nuclear response in hypothetical circumstances. In a classified
document, you are willing to be more specific what the policy is,
because people in the administration have to understand it for
planning purposes."
      Both former officials and arms control analysts say that making
the classified text public might raise concerns among Washington's
allies but has little military significance. On the other hand, they
note, the nuclear deterrent has little value if a potential adversary
does not know what it can expect.
      They agree that there must have been "good reasons" for the
White House to have "cleaned up" the document before releasing it.
They speculated on at least three:
      Although responding to a non-nuclear attack by nuclear weapons
is not banned by international law, existing arms-control treaties
call for a "proportionate response" to biological and chemical
attacks. The question is, one former official said, whether any
nuclear response is proportionate to any non-nuclear attack.
      Second, naming nuclear weapons specifically flies in the face of
the "negative security assurances" that U.S. administrations have
given for 25 years. Those statements, while somewhat modified under
different presidents, essentially have said the United States will
not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state unless that state
attacks it together with a nuclear ally.
      Finally, publicly and explicitly articulating a policy of
nuclear response can hurt the international nonproliferation regime,
which the United States firmly supports. That sets a bad example for
countries such as India and Pakistan and gives rogue states an
incentive to develop their own nuclear capabilities.
      William M. Arkin, a military analyst, wrote in the Los Angeles
Times earlier this week that the Bush administration's war planning
"moves nuclear weapons out of their long-established special category
and lumps them in with all the other military options."
      Mr. Arkin quoted "multiple sources" close to the preparations
for a war in Iraq as saying that the focus is on "two possible roles
for nuclear weapons: attacking Iraqi facilities located so deep
underground that they might be impervious to conventional explosives;
and thwarting Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction."
      He cited a Dec. 11 memorandum from Defense Secretary Donald H.
Rumsfeld to Mr. Bush, asking for authority to place Adm. James O.
Ellis Jr., chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, in charge of the full
range of "strategic" warfare options.
      NSPD 17 appears to have upgraded nuclear weapons beyond the
traditional function as a nuclear deterrent.
      "This is an interesting distinction," Mr. Spring said. "There is
an acknowledgment up front that under the post-Cold War
circumstances, deterrence in the sense we applied it during the Cold
War is not as reliable. I think it's accurate."
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