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Scientists To Bush: Don't Even Consider Tactical Nukes

by Jim Lobe

U.S. Considering Use Of Nukes In Iraq
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Authors of a secret 1966 Pentagon study on the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Vietnam say their conclusions that TNWs could be "catastrophic" to U.S. global interests are at least as compelling today as they were almost 40 years ago.

The study by four top defense consultants within the so-called JASON group, obtained and released Sunday by the California-based Nautilus Institute, found that the "political effects of U.S. first use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic," given the concentration of U.S. forces in Vietnam at the time and the ease with which Vietnamese guerrillas could deliver nuclear weapons obtained from the Soviet Union or China.

"The use of TNW in Southeast Asia is likely to result in greatly increased long-term risk of nuclear operations in other parts of the world," the scientists argued, citing possible attacks on the Panama Canal, oil pipelines and storage facilities in Venezuela and even Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv.

"The main conclusion (of the report) is that the United States offers to any likely adversary much better targets for nuclear weapons than these adversaries offer to the United States," said Freeman Dyson, a Princeton University professor who was one of four authors of the 1966 report, 'Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia.'

"This is even more true in the fight against terrorism than it was in Vietnam," he added in an interview with Nautilus director, Peter Hayes.

The release of the report, for which Nautilus fought a 20-year battle with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officials at the Pentagon and the Energy Department, comes at a critical moment in U.S. nuclear-weapons policy and the twin crises in Iraq and North Korea.

Last week, 10 Democratic senators, led by Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, complained in a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush that recent changes in his administration's nuclear policy "threatens the very foundation" of international arms control.

"Recent public revelations ... suggest that your administration considers nuclear weapons as a mere extension of the continuum of conventional weapons open to the United States, and that your administration may use nuclear weapons in the looming military conflict against Iraq," the senators said, citing a news reports that Bush has signed a classified document permitting the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological and chemical attacks by Iraq.

In addition to that contingency, the Pentagon has also been considering the use of nuclear arms to destroy targets, such as enemy leaders or stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that are buried deep underground -- so-called "bunker-busters."

And, a classified Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) signed by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld in December added officially non-nuclear states, including Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Syria, to a list of nuclear-armed countries that could be targets for U.S. nuclear weapons, a major departure from past U.S. policy.

Last month, reports were leaked to the press that Rumsfeld has scheduled a secret meeting in August to discuss the construction of a new generation of nuclear weapons, including "mini-nukes," "bunker-busters" and neutron bombs, and to end a long-standing moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons.

These reports have spurred rising concern in the arms-control community. "It is impossible to overstate the challenge these plans pose to the comprehensive test ban moratorium, and U.S. compliance with... the nuclear non-proliferation treaty," said Greg Mello, head of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear watchdog group that obtained some of the latest documents, in a recent interview.

The discussion about breaching the firewall that has existed since 1945 between nuclear and conventional weapons has also contributed to alarm among the scientists who took part in the 1966 study on TNWs.

"Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has grown up a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons for anything but deterrence," said Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 and was one of the JASON authors.

"But there have been some signs recently of a weakening of this taboo in talk of the development of low-yield weapons for attacking underground facilities, and even in suggestions of a revival of interest in nuclear-armed, anti-missile interceptors. Let's hope that this will go no further than did the idea of using nuclear weapons in the war in Southeast Asia."

The JASON group, founded in 1959, has included many of the nation's top scientists, who serve on a rotating base. It carries out 20 to 30 annual studies, most of which are classified. Last year, Rumsfeld's Pentagon tried to end the JASON contract, which fuelled concerns about the politicisation by the Bush administration of scientific advisory panels throughout the government.

The 1966 study, when the Vietnam War was close to its height, resulted from rumors that senior military officers, including some close to the White House, were considering the use of TNWs to interdict the "Ho Chi Minh Trail", the network of roads and paths that permitted North Vietnam to supply Viet Cong and its own forces in South Vietnam.

Distribution of the highly classified report apparently quashed all talk about using TNW in the Indochina War. From the perspective of the U.S. military, the most chilling sections of the report laid out the vulnerability of U.S. forces to nuclear attack with portable weapons that could be carried in small boats or trucks and could even be deployed in a mortar or recoilless rifle.

The study concluded that maintaining the taboo against nuclear weapons was key in reducing the chances of their use. "(T)he danger of nuclear guerrilla activity is likely to arise in some degree during the next 20 years," it warned. "But the dangers will certainly become more acute if the U.S. leads the way by initiating tactical nuclear war in Southeast Asia."

"It is a stark warning that using nuclear weapons against Iraq, North Korea or trans-national terrorists -- or threatening to do so -- makes more likely the use of the only weapons that can really threaten the United States on the battlefield with untold consequences for innocent civilians here and abroad," said Natuilus' Hayes.

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Albion Monitor March 11, 2003 (

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