Nuclear fallout

A classified document on U.S. nuclear arsenal plans was leaked recently, but the White House didn't seem too upset. Some say Bush is taking a risky gamble, playing the leak as a deterrence card.

March 17, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

In Stanley Kubrick's movie Dr. Strangelove, the Soviet Union has developed the ultimate nuclear deterrence, the Doomsday Machine that will blanket the world with deadly radioactive fallout in the event of a nuclear attack on that country.

Peter Sellers' title character has a fundamental question for the Russian ambassador. "Why didn't you tell anybody about it?" he asks from his wheelchair.

It turns out the Soviet premier was saving the news for a holiday celebration, but Strangelove had pointed out their fatal error - the Doomsday Machine wouldn't deter anyone who didn't know about it.

And that may well be why there has been no histrionics about the leaking of a classified Pentagon document this month that detailed the latest plans for the U.S. nuclear arsenal - possibly developing new types of weapons that could be used against places such as China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Iran and Libya.

The story reporting the details of the administration's Nuclear Posture Review first appeared in the Los Angeles Times. There have been no denials of the document's veracity from the White House, no calls for a hunt to get the leakers. And therein lies the delicate paradox that comes with having a stock of the most devastating weapons ever devised. They are so horrendous that a sane person could not contemplate using them, but if everyone thinks you would never use them, they do no good.

Avner Cohen, a senior research fellow in the Program on Global Security and Disarmament at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that such documents are usually kept within what he calls "the highly classified nuclear bubble" where chilling contingencies are often discussed. When they get out of that bubble, then the documents may have a very different meaning.

"The administration seems not to be so upset about this leak from a classified document," he says.

"So maybe the document is somewhat embarrassing when you sit down to talk to Arab leaders, but the leaks may also play a purpose in terms of deterrence of Saddam Hussein," Cohen says. "The U.S. is still as committed to the nuclear taboo as before, or so I hope. But in the eyes of the adversary you are trying to deter, you want to give them some kind of worry, some element of uncertainty."

But many fear that if the Bush administration is playing a deterrence card with this leak, it is a risky gamble. For one, it potentially changes a longstanding policy of the United States not to expand its nuclear arsenal by suggesting building new tactical weaponry.

"The notion that has leaked out that the U.S. is going to be building new kinds of nuclear weapons for new situations in the future [is] actually not what the U.S. has promised to do in its attempt to restrain the spread of nuclear weapons," Richard Butler, former head of U.N. weapons inspection in Iraq, said in an interview on CNN last week. "It has promised it wouldn't be doing that."

Butler said this was the most disturbing part of the leaked document. "The U.S., I think, cannot argue successfully to others that we have to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction if the U.S. is itself building new ones, new types," he said.

`Contrary' to assurances

Targeting the countries named in the leaked document also potentially calls for a violation of a tenet of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty that promises no nuclear strike against any non-nuclear country that signed the treaty unless they attack in conjunction with a nuclear power.

"We have promised our allies, and adversaries for that matter, that these weapons will only be used for deterrence," says Gar Alperovitz, also at Maryland's Program on Global Security and Disarmament. "This document is contrary to those assurances."

Paul Boyer, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, says he thinks the document represents the kind of contingency planning that is the job of such Defense Department analysts, but still has the potential for a dangerous resonance. "I don't anticipate a nuclear attack on these [targeted] countries, but what I think it does is lower the threshold by introducing the idea of nuclear war as feasible and possible," he says. "That definitely is a move away from the absolute firewall policy that supposedly has been the American position in the past."

Boyer agrees that this adds to the problems of proliferation, and raises the possibility of nations that have nuclear weapons using them.

"If the U.S. is perceived as a nation seriously thinking of using nuclear weapons to resolve its problems, what signal does that send to India, Pakistan, Israel and other nations that have nuclear weapons?" he asks.

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