August 7, 2003
'Dr Strangeloves' Meet to Plan New Nuclear Era
by Julian Borger in Bellevue, Nebraska
US government scientists and Pentagon officials will gather today
behind tight security at a Nebraska air force base to discuss the
development of a modernized arsenal of small, specialized nuclear
weapons which critics believe could mark the dawn of a new era in
The Pentagon has not released a list of the 150 people at the
secret meeting, but according to leaks, they will include scientists
and administrators from the three main nuclear weapons laboratories,
Los Alamos, Sandia and Livermore, senior officers from the air force
and strategic command, weapons contractors and civilian defense
Requests by Congress to send observers were rejected, and an oversight
committee which included academic nuclear experts was disbanded only a
few weeks earlier.
The purpose of the meeting, at Offutt air force base, only became
known after a draft agenda was leaked earlier this year, which
included discussions on a new generation of low-yield
"mini-nukes", "bunker-buster" bombs for possible
use against rogue states or organizations armed with nuclear,
biological or chemical weapons.
The session will also debate whether development of the weapons will
require the White House to end the US moratorium on nuclear testing
declared in 1992.
Major Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "We need to
change our nuclear strategy from the cold war to one that can deal
with emerging threats."
He said the administration remained committed to the test moratorium
(the US has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but has
pledged to observe it). But he said: "The meeting will give some
thought to how we guarantee the efficacy of the [nuclear]
While insisting that it has no plans to resume testing, the
administration has asked Congress for funds for a project that would
cut down the amount of time it would take for the cold war-era test
site in Nevada to start functioning again.
Yesterday, a steady stream of men in summer suits and uniforms arrived
at Omaha airport, to be met by welcoming parties of air force officers
and taken to the Offutt base, 10 miles to the south in the small town
The lushly-landscaped base, where the gray shell of a B-52 bomber has
been mounted behind a screen of fruit trees, sits atop a labyrinth of
high-tech bunkers from where strategic command is poised, 24 hours a
day, to fight a nuclear war. It inspired the setting for the 1964 film
Dr Strangelove. It is where President George Bush was flown on
September 11 2001, when it was thought that the terrorist attacks
could be part of a sustained onslaught on the US.
The place and time of the Offutt meeting is infused with apparently
unintended historical irony. The visitors arrived on the anniversary
of the Hiroshima bombing and the last will be leaving on Saturday, the
anniversary of the attack on Nagasaki. The B-29 planes which dropped
those nuclear bombs, Enola Gay and Bock's Car, were both built at
The use of those weapons marked the beginning of the cold war and the
first nuclear age. Today's meeting, many observers believe, could mark
the start of a second.
"This is a confab of Dr Strangeloves," said Daryl Kimball,
head of the Arms Control Association, a national non-partisan
membership organization dedicated to working for arms control.
"The fact that the Pentagon is barring the public and
congressional staff from this key meeting on US nuclear weapons policy
suggests that the administration seeks to discuss and deliberate on
its policies largely in secret."
The uncanny echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not go unnoticed
by a handful of Catholic protesters from Iowa who have gathered at
Offutt to mark the anniversaries for the past 25 years.
Father Frank Cordaro, the leader of the protest group, said:
"This is an American blasphemy to life and to God. They are going
to violate another treaty by developing small nuclear weapons. We had
made the promise not to do these weapons, but this sole superpower is
just ignoring the non-proliferation treaty. That's madness."
Today's meeting traces its origins to a report by the National
Institute for Public Policy (NIPP) published in January 2001 as the
Bush administration took office. The report argued for a
"smaller, more efficient, arsenal" of specialized weapons.
Some deeply buried targets, it argued, could only be destroyed by
"one or more nuclear weapons". Only by developing these new
weapons could the US maintain its deterrent, it said.
Paul Robinson, the head of the Sandia weapons laboratory, who is
attending the Offutt meeting, believes that America's new adversaries
would be more successfully deterred if the line between conventional
and nuclear weapons was blurred.
He argued in a recent commentary in the Albuquerque Tribune that
"military strategy is evolving to consider combinations of
conventional and/or nuclear attacks for pre-emption or
Many of the NIPP report's authors went on to take senior positions in
the administration, including Linton Brooks, head of the national
nuclear security administration which oversees new weapons projects,
Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, and Stephen
Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
The report became the basis for the administration's Nuclear Posture
Review in late 2001 which contemplated the use of nuclear weapons
pre-emptively against rogue states, to destroy stockpiles of nuclear,
chemical or biological weapons.
The officials involved in compiling both documents will play a
prominent role at Offutt, but scientists and officials with dissenting
views have not been invited.
"I was specifically told I couldn't come," a congressional
weapons expert said.
Greg Mello, the head of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog
organization, said: "There will be tons of contractors there from
the weapons labs and the weapons plants. Contractors can come, but
The Pentagon insists that today's meeting is technical rather than
policy-making, but critics are concerned that it is being used to
build up momentum behind the development of the weapons, despite
opposition from Congress.
"I'm suspicious that further down the road, they're going to
say 'this was decided at Offutt', or 'this comes out of the
recommendations at Offutt', a congressional staff member said.