Put Up Yer Nukes: The Pentagon's Nuclear Dreams

A political bombshell blew up in the faces of Pentagon officials this past weekend when the Los Angles Times revealed contingency plans for using nuclear weapons to attack seven countries. Is the Pentagon on steroids? One nuclear arms expert told the Times that "Dr. Strangelove is clearly still alive in the Pentagon."

This story appears to be bigger than the Pentagon's ill-advised idea of creating an Office of Strategic Influence -- or as John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine put it, the Office of Strategic Lying.

The LA Times report, coupled with a mid-February report in the San Jose Mercury on how the United States proposes to deal with cyberterrorism, makes one question whether the contingency thinking/planning going on in Washington is a product of testosterone run amok. Perhaps these folks have too much time on their hands!

In an article headlined "U.S. Works Up Plan for Using Nuclear Arms," LA Times reporter Paul Richtor writes: "The Bush Administration has directed the military to prepare contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries and to build smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations, according to a classified Pentagon report."

Unlike some other recent administration schemes, this time around Congress cannot claim that it is in the dark. "The secret report," says Richtor, was given to Congress on Jan. 8, and it contends that "the Pentagon needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria."

Richtor: "It says the weapons could be used in three types of situations: against targets able to withstand nonnuclear attack; in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; or "in the event of surprising military developments."

The phrase "surprising developments" is ambiguous. It leaves the nuclear option door open to just about anything that might be considered a "surprising development." And, as we have seen since September 11, all sorts of things have surprised the government. The terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- surprise. Anthrax sent to several Congressmen -- surprise. The kidnap and killing of journalist Daniel Pearl -- surprise. The recent remobilization of Al Qaeda and Taliban troops -- surprise.

You get the point. None of these events were either expected by or preventable by the Pentagon. They were all surprises. Pentagon cooks up nuclear nightmare -- this time the surprise is on us!

Some nuclear arms experts find the prospects chilling. "This is dynamite," said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear arms expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "I can imagine what these countries are going to be saying at the U.N." John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, told the Los Angeles Times: "They're trying desperately to find new uses for nuclear weapons, when their uses should be limited to deterrence. This is very, very dangerous talk."

On Sunday morning, March 10, Secretary of State Colin Powell told CBS News' "Face the Nation" that there was "less than meets the eye and less than meets the headline with respect to the story. We are always reviewing our options," he said, adding that the Nuclear Posture Review in question was required by Congress.

Powell, who it seems has been out of the loop or reading from the wrong script several times since the beginning of the "war on terrorism," added: "We should not get all carried away with some sense that the United States is planning to use nuclear weapons in some contingency that is coming up in the near future," Powell added. "It is not the case. What the Pentagon has done with this study is sound, military, conceptual planning and the president will take that planning and he will give his directions on how to proceed."

Rumsfeld's Early Warning

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's support for the nuclear option comes as no surprise. In a mid-September appearance on ABC's This Week, Sam Donaldson asked Rumsfeld: "Can we rule out the use of nuclear weapons?" Rumsfeld responded: "You know, that subject -- we have an amazing accomplishment that's been achieved on the part of human beings. We've had this unbelievably powerful weapon, nuclear weapons, since what 55 years now plus, and it's not been fired in anger since 1945. That's an amazing accomplishment. I think it reflects a sensitivity on the part of successive presidents that they ought to find as many other ways to deal with problems as is possible."

Donaldson: "I'll have to think about your answer. I don't think the answer was no."

Rumsfeld: "The answer was that that we ought to be very proud of the record of humanity that we have not used those weapons for 55 years. And we have to find as many ways possible to deal with this serious problem of terrorism. And if, Sam, you think of the loss of human life on Tuesday and then put in your head the reality that a number of countries today have other so-called asymmetrical threat capabilities - - ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, chemical weapons, biological weapons, cyber warfare -- these are the kinds of things that are used in this era, the 21st century. And a germ warfare attack anywhere in the world would bring about losses of lives not in the thousands but in the millions."

Rumseld's revelations square with the thinking of the Heritage Foundation, the powerful right-think Washington, DC-based think tank. Jack Spencer, a Heritage defense analyst, said, "We need to have a credible deterrence against regimes involved in international terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction." He told the Times that the contents of the report did not surprise him and represent "the right way to develop a nuclear posture for a post-Cold War world."

Military Response to Cyberterrorism

Now to the other disturbing, and less publicized story. In mid-February in an article headlined "White House expert says U.S. may retaliate with military if terrorists try online attacks," the San Jose Mercury reported that "The United States might retaliate militarily if foreign countries or terrorist groups abroad try to strike this country through the Internet," this according to the White House technology adviser Richard Clarke.

Clarke told a Senate hearing on cyberterrorism that "We reserve the right to respond in any way appropriate: through covert action, through military action, any one of the tools available to the president.'' Clarke also named several countries where cyber-attacks might emanate from. He said that Iran, Iraq, North Korea, China, Russia and other countries "already are having people trained in Internet warfare. So you have your basic "axis of evil" countries looped together with China and Russia, two countries consistently praised by the president for their support in the "war on terrorism." Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising; the playing field for "war on terrorism" allies and enemies is a continually shifting landscape.

Clarke refused to specify what type of attack might lead to a military response. He told reporters "that's the kind of ambiguity that we like to keep intentionally to create some deterrence." Should there be a concern over cyberterrorism? Absolutely. According to the White House budget office, the government will spend about $2.7 billion this fiscal year on computer and network security, a figure projected to rise to $4.2 billion in the 2003 federal budget. In its first report to Congress on computer information security, the budget office reported that "many agencies have significant deficiencies in every important area of security."

Back in September, when Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) cast the only vote against giving the president a blank check in his war on terrorism, I doubt that she was prescient enough to foresee either of these two contingency plans. Despite her resounding victory in the March 5 Democratic primary, Ms. Lee took the heat from so-called patriots across the country -- she received death threats, ugly email, was branded a traitor by right-wing ideologues and for a short while, became the number one "poster child" for the conservative movement. (She's since been replaced by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.)

These days, her lone dissenting voice once again sounds like the voice of reason.

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer who chronicles right-wing movements for WorkingforChange.com, where this article originally appeared.

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