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, the Washington Times is reporting in its Friday edition.
As reported by the 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 talks about resorting to "all of our options."
A White House spokesman declined to comment when asked about the document Thursday night and neither confirmed nor denied its existence, the Times reported.
The Times report follows an escalation of rhetoric by Bush and his administration regarding their frustration over the inspection process in Iraq.
The president all but set a timetable for war Thursday, warning Saddam Hussein that Iraq has "weeks not months" to disarm or face an invasion by the United States.
Opening an eleventh-hour campaign to sway a wide array of skeptics, the president said, "For the sake of peace, this issue must be resolved." His advisers said Bush will maintain consultations with allies through mid-February, when the next U.N. weapons inspectors' report is expected to force talks to closure.
In a flurry of diplomatic activity, Bush met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, placed calls to leaders of Portugal and Sweden, dispatched top advisers throughout Washington to argue his case and broached the possibility of allowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq for a safe haven — all actions aimed at pressuring both Baghdad and balking U.S. allies.
The disclosure by the Washington Times regarding the apparent change of policy regarding nuclear weapons, at least in classified documents, seems to support some 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.
As reported by the Times, 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 told the Times.
Contributing: New York Times, Associated Press