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White House Says Weapons Plan Necessary to Deter U.S. Enemies

By David G. Savage

U.S. officials, responding to reports that the Pentagon has drawn up contingency plans for expanded use of nuclear weapons, said Sunday that they hoped the threat of nuclear retaliation will deter other nations from using biological or chemical weapons against Americans.

The Bush administration wants to “send a very strong signal to anyone who might try to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The only way to deter such a use is to be clear it would be met with a devastating response,” she said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described the report as “prudent military planning,” not a plan for imminent attack.

“There are nations out there developing weapons of mass destruction. Prudent planners have to give some consideration as to the range of options the president should have available to him to deal with these kinds of threats,” Powell said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The White House was responding to a Los Angeles Times story Saturday that revealed that the Pentagon has drawn up plans that arms control experts say could signal a reversal of a decades-long policy of relegating nuclear weapons to a last resort.

Responding to new threats realized since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration now wants to consider using nuclear weapons to respond to biological and chemical attacks, as well as nuclear strikes. They also are contemplating using smaller weapons that can better target new challenges faced in recent wars: deeply dug caves and reinforced bunkers.

Arms control advocates warn that such moves could destabilize world relations by encouraging other nations to develop such weapons, but some conservative analysts say the Pentagon must prepare for a changed world, where dozens of countries, and some terrorist groups, have secret weapons programs.

The classified Pentagon report cited five nations -- Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria -- as posing a new level of threat to the United States that could require a nuclear response. The report also cites nuclear powers Russia and China, but makes clear that Russia is no longer considered a U.S. adversary.

The disclosure of U.S. nuclear contingency planning could complicate diplomacy efforts by Vice President Dick Cheney, who arrived in London on Sunday for a 10-day, 12-nation swing through Europe and the Middle East to discuss with allies the next phase of the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

Administration officials went out of their way Sunday to assert that military planners have not targeted any nation for a nuclear attack but rather are preparing for how to respond if others resort to weapons of mass destruction.

“Right now, today, not a single nation on the face of the Earth is being targeted by an American nuclear weapon on a day-to-day basis,” Powell said.

Powell, who is monitoring reports from Gen. Anthony Zinni’s shuttle diplomacy in the Mideast, worried that the leak of the Pentagon report will “get the international community upset.”

“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,” he said. “It is not the case.”