approves nuclear response
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
"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
In the classified version, nuclear
forces are designated as the main part of any U.S. deterrent, and
conventional capabilities "complement" the nuclear
"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]
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
"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
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 said.
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
"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
Mr. Kimball said U.S. nuclear weapons
"should only be used to deter nuclear attacks by
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
NSPD 17 appears to have
upgraded nuclear weapons beyond the traditional function as a nuclear
"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
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