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 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 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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