- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

What was strange, after the newest news leak of a secret Pentagon document changing the threshold for America's use of nuclear weapons, was the sound we didn't hear.
We didn't hear the traditional wailing of top administration spokespeople the folks who typically react to such scoops by performing like pro wrestlers pounding the mat in feigned pain.
There was the Pentagon's classified Nuclear Posture Review splashed all over the unclassified front pages of the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, March 9, and the New York Times on Sunday, March 10. It told the world of a new American planning blueprint that was the first public indication that the United States is now considering a first-use policy for nuclear weapons in certain circumstances.
The contingency document disclosed that the Bush administration is drafting plans for the first use of nuclear weapons against nuclear nations such as China and North Korea and (although it is not considered foreseeable) Russia. And in certain circumstances, for the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations that have supported terrorists Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya. The Pentagon document called for the development of a smaller nuclear weapon suitable for battlefield use and for a nuclear device capable of busting underground bunkers and facilities that are now too deep to be penetrated by non-nuclear bombs.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the secret document said U.S. nuclear weapons could be used in three circumstances: against targets that were able to withstand non-nuclear attack; in response to an attack by any weapon of mass destruction nuclear, chemical or biological; or, in the catchall phrase quoted from the document, "in the event of surprising military developments."
The newspaper reports noted prominently that the secret report had been provided to some members of Congress on Jan. 8. This predictably sparked the conventional wisdom in Washington that this was a journalistic wink-and-nod code meaning that meant someone in Congress leaked the document.
And that in turn, led to one of those merry moments on the Washington Sunday brunch circuit. A prominent senator told me the leak surely seemed timed to complicate things for Vice President Dick Cheney, who was embarking that day on a trip to countries in the Middle East adding Mr. Cheney must be fuming, the senator opined.
To which I opined right back that it is possible the senator, while wise in all manner of things, had this one all backward. Because: This was not the sort of saber-rattling message a president wants to deliver in a speech. Nor was it one that a vice president would relish springing on unsuspecting diplomats at every stop. But now all Mr. Cheney had to do was calmly put things in context, big-time. He didn't have to be the big-stick bearer of bad news we in the media have done that just the calm-but-firm explainer.
Well, at that the senator nodded and opined that this made sense. So I confessed that I had cheated. I had seen the Sunday morning talk shows and the administration's Sunday mainstays hadn't wailed about the leak at all, as we have seen so many of our top brass do after other secret documents were splashed all over the news.
"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," said Secretary of State Colin Powell. "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."
And presidential national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the document was really "nothing new," just a few options about "how do we deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against us?" Actually, it is quite new. And in the days that followed, Washington's nuclear think-tankers weighed in to say just that. Nuclear weapons have always been deemed valuable for their role in deterrence against other nuclear nations. That was the Mutual Assured Destruction policy of the Cold War. But any policy contemplating first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations, even evil ones, is a major change.
Consider how India and Pakistan, nuclear nations now in a standoff over Kashmir, might view a new U.S. first-use policy. The development of a new generation of small nuclear weapons for first use against non-nuclear wrongdoers can only be interpreted as a sign that Washington, hometown of thinkers who in another context and another time came up with the policy of "Don't ask. Don't tell," have now come up with a new one: You can't. We can.

Martin Schram is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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