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[] LAT: The Nuclear Option in Iraq (W. Arkin),

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The Nuclear Option in Iraq
The U.S. has lowered the bar for using the ultimate weapon.
By William M. Arkin

January 26 2003

WASHINGTON -- One year after President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran 
and North Korea the "axis of evil," the United States is thinking 
about the unthinkable: It is preparing for the possible use of nuclear 
weapons against Iraq.

At the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Omaha and inside 
planning cells of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, target lists are being 
scrutinized, options are being pondered and procedures are being 
tested to give nuclear armaments a role in the new U.S. doctrine of 

According to multiple sources close to the process, the current 
planning focuses on two possible roles for nuclear weapons:

* attacking Iraqi facilities located so deep underground that they 
might be impervious to conventional explosives;

* thwarting Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction.

Nuclear weapons have, since they were first created, been part of 
the arsenal discussed by war planners. But the Bush administration's 
decision to actively plan for possible preemptive use of such 
weapons, especially as so-called bunker busters, against Iraq 
represents a significant lowering of the nuclear threshold. It rewrites 
the ground rules of nuclear combat in the name of fighting terrorism.

It also moves nuclear weapons out of their long-established special 
category and lumps them in with all the other military options -- from 
psychological warfare, covert operations and Special Forces to air 
power in all its other forms.

For the United States to lower the nuclear threshold and break down 
the firewall separating nuclear weapons from everything else is 
unsettling for at least three reasons.

First, if the United States lowers the nuclear threshold -- even as a 
possibility -- it raises the likelihood that other nations will lower their 
own thresholds and employ nuclear weapons in situations where 
they simply need a stronger military punch. Until now, the United 
States has reserved nuclear weapons for retaliation against nuclear 
attacks or immediate threats to national survival, a standard tacitly 
but widely accepted around the world. If the president believes that 
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses that kind of danger to the 
United States, he has failed to convince the world -- and many U.S. 

Second, the move toward thinking of nuclear weapons as just one 
more option among many comes at a time when technology is 
offering a host of better choices. Increasingly, the U.S. military has 
the capability of disabling underground bases or destroying 
biological and chemical weapons without uncorking the nuclear 
bottle, through a combination of sophisticated airpower, special 
operations and such 21st century capabilities as high-powered 
microwave weapons and cyber warfare.

Third, there are dangers in concentrating the revision of nuclear 
policy within a single military command, STRATCOM, which until 
now has been focused strictly on strategic -- not policy -- issues of 
nuclear combat. Command staff members have unrivaled expertise 
in the usage and effects of nuclear weapons, but their expertise 
does not extend to the whys of weapons usage.

Entrusting major policy reviews to tightly controlled, secret 
organizations inside the Pentagon is a hallmark of Defense 
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's tenure. Doing so streamlines 
decision-making and encourages new thinking, advocates say.

But it also bypasses dissenters, many of whom are those in the 
armed services with the most knowledge and the deepest 
experience with the issues. The Bush inner circle is known to be a 
tight bunch, prone to "group think" about Iraq and uninterested in 
having its assumptions challenged. But there are opinions they need 
to hear. While most military officers seem to consider the likelihood 
of our using nuclear weapons in Iraq to be low, they worry about the 
increased importance placed on them and about the contradictions 
inherent in contemplating the use of nuclear weapons for the 
purpose of eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

The administration's interest in nuclear contingency plans stems 
from its deeply held conviction that the United States must act 
against Iraq because of a new and more dangerous terrorist threat 
involving weapons of mass destruction.

"The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of 
radicalism and technology," Bush declared in the introduction to his 
national security strategy, issued last fall. It said enemies of the 
United States "have openly declared that they are seeking weapons 
of mass destruction."

In May, Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 17, 
officially confirming the doctrine of preemptively thwarting any 
potential use of weapons of mass destruction.

"U.S. military and appropriate civilian agencies must possess the full 
range of operational capabilities to counter the threat and use of 
WMD," the president reiterated last December in his National 
Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The current nuclear planning, revealed in interviews with military 
officers and described in documents reviewed by the Los Angeles 
Times, is being carried out at STRATCOM's Omaha headquarters, 
among small teams in Washington and at Vice President Dick 
Cheney's "undisclosed location" in Pennsylvania.

The command, previously responsible for nuclear weapons alone, 
has seen its responsibilities mushroom. On Dec. 11, the Defense 
secretary sent Bush a memorandum asking for authority to place 
Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., the STRATCOM commander, in charge of 
the full range of "strategic" warfare options to combat terrorist states 
and organizations.

The memo, obtained by The Times, recommended assigning all 
responsibilities for dealing with foreign weapons of mass destruction, 
including "global strike; integrated missile defense; [and] information 
operations" to STRATCOM. That innocuous-seeming description of 
responsibilities covers enormous ground, bringing everything from 
the use of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear strikes to covert and 
special operations to cyber warfare and "strategic deception" under 
the purview of nuclear warriors.

Earlier this month, Bush approved Rumsfeld's proposal. On the 
surface, these new assignments give the command a broader set of 
tools to avoid nuclear escalation. In reality, they open the door much 
wider to contemplating American use of nuclear weapons. The use 
of biological or chemical weapons against the U.S. military could be 
seen as worthy of the same response as a Russian nuclear attack. If 
Iraq were to use biological or chemical weapons during a war with 
the United States, it could have tragic consequences, but it would 
not alter the war's outcome. Our use of nuclear weapons to defeat 
Hussein, on the other hand, has the potential to create a political and 
global disaster, one that would forever pit the Arab and Islamic world 
against us.

How great a change these steps represent are revealed in the fact 
that STRATCOM owes its existence to previous post-Cold War 
policymakers who considered it vital to erect a great firewall 
between nuclear and conventional forces.

Now, with almost no discussion inside the Pentagon or in public, 
Rumsfeld and the Bush White House are tearing that firewall down. 
Instead of separating nuclear and conventional weapons, Rumsfeld 
is merging them in one command structure with a disturbingly simple 
mission: "If you can find that time-critical, key terrorist target or that 
weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpile, and you have minutes rather 
than hours or days to deal with it, how do you reach out and negate 
that threat to our nation half a world away?" Ellis asked in 

The rapid transformation of Ellis' command reveals his answer to 
that rhetorical question. Since 9/11, Ellis and his command have 
been bombarded with new demands and responsibilities. First, the 
Pentagon's nuclear posture review, signed by Rumsfeld in 
December 2001 and issued in final form in early 2002, directed the 
military to reinvigorate its nuclear capability. STRATCOM was to 
play a leading role in that reinvigoration.

Among other things, the still-classified posture review said, "nuclear 
weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand 
nonnuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or 
bioweapon facilities)."

The review called upon the military to develop "deliberate pre-
planned and practiced missions" to attack WMD facilities, even if an 
enemy did not use nuclear weapons first against the United States or 
its allies.

According to STRATCOM documents and briefings, its newly 
created Theater Planning Activity has now taken on all aspects of 
assessing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons facilities 
worldwide. Planners have focused intelligence gathering and 
analysis on seven priority target nations (the "axis of evil" nations 
along with Syria, Libya, China and Russia) and have completed a 
detailed analysis of intelligence data available on all suspect sites. 
According to U.S. Central Command sources, a "Theater Nuclear 
Planning Document" for Iraq has been prepared for the 
administration and Central Command.

What worries many senior officials in the armed forces is not that the 
United States has a vast array of weapons or contingency plans for 
using them. The danger is that nuclear weapons -- locked away in a 
Pandora's box for more than half a century -- are being taken out of 
that lockbox and put on the shelf with everything else. While 
Pentagon leaders insist that does not mean they take nuclear 
weapons lightly, critics fear that removing the firewall and adding 
nuclear weapons to the normal option ladder makes their use more 
likely -- especially under a policy of preemption that says 
Washington alone will decide when to strike.

To make such a doctrine encompass nuclear weapons is to embrace 
a view that, sooner or later, will spread beyond the moral capitals of 
Washington and London to New Delhi and Islamabad, to Pyongyang 
and Baghdad, Beijing, Tel Aviv and to every nuclear nation of the 

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