Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
U.S. Issues Broad Threat to WMD Accomplices

Wade Boese

Serious consequences await those that aid terrorists in acquiring or using unconventional weapons under a new policy that national security adviser Stephen Hadley has broadcast. The Bush administration, however, is not clarifying whether the punishment could include U.S. nuclear weapons use, an ambiguity that suits some experts but troubles others.

Speaking May 28 to representatives of some 80 governments attending a Washington meeting on curbing the spread of unconventional arms, Hadley noted that the United States for many years has maintained that any state that employs biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, often referred to collectively as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), against the United States, its forces, or friends and allies could face U.S. retaliation with “overwhelming force.” He then continued by saying, “[T]oday, we also make clear that the United States will hold any state, terrorist group, or other nonstate actor or individual fully accountable for supporting or enabling terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction, whether by facilitating, financing, or providing expertise or safe haven for such efforts.” Hadley first made a nearly identical statement in a Feb. 8 speech at Stanford University in California.

The Hadley statements expand on previous U.S. warnings by extending the threat of retribution beyond those that use unconventional weapons to those who help an attacker along the way. Moreover, the acquisition of or efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction is sufficient to precipitate U.S. action. In a June 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, the Department of State emphasized “a key element” of Hadley’s warning is the “focus to include deterring actors that facilitate terrorist acquisition or use” of weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration’s previous declaratory policy was extolled in the December 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was a public version of the classified September 2002 National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 17. In the public document, the administration warned that the United States would reserve “the right to respond with overwhelming force—including through resort to all of our options—to the use of [weapons of mass destruction] against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies” (emphasis added). Leaked portions of the classified statement revealed that the phrase “including through resort to all of our options” was a substitute to the NSPD-17’s original and more explicit threat “including potentially nuclear weapons.” (See ACT, January/February 2003 .)

The implication that the United States might use nuclear weapons to respond to biological or chemical weapons attacks was interpreted by some analysts and foreign governments as conflicting with U.S. negative security assurances given in 1978 and 1995 and reaffirmed in February 2002. Those assurances state that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against countries without such arms unless they attack the United States in association or alliance with a nuclear-armed state. Still, the Bush administration threat was not a statement that biological or chemical weapons attack would definitely engender U.S. nuclear retaliation, and U.S. officials in previous administrations had made comparable vague declarations. (See ACT, May/June 1996.)

Bush administration officials, according to a May 8, 2007, New York Times article, convened in May 2006 to discuss whether they should issue a more overt warning to countries that if their nuclear material or weapons were used in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, they would be held “fully responsible.” That meeting reportedly ended inconclusively, but President George W. Bush later warned North Korea after its October 2006 nuclear test that any transfers of nuclear weapons or materials to other states or nonstate actors would pose a “grave threat” to the United States and that it would hold North Korea “fully accountable” for such actions. (See ACT, November 2006 .)

Hadley’s remarks, which expanded the North Korea warning to other states, are opaque as to what exactly would befall an entity complicit in terrorist WMD procurement or use. Although appearing in adjoining sentences, it is not directly stated that the threat of being held “fully accountable” includes possible U.S. use of “overwhelming force,” which at least in NSPD-17 encompassed the potential use of nuclear weapons.

In its June 20 e-mail, the State Department declined to answer whether overwhelming force as recently used by Hadley includes possible resort to nuclear weapons. Instead, the department stated that the United States would “take all factors into account in developing an appropriate response” to a WMD attack. Such a response, according to the department, could include “diplomatic efforts, seizures of funds, military actions, or the use of overwhelming force.” It asserted that past U.S. negative security assurances were still valid.

One former State Department veteran who worked more than 35 years on arms issues agrees that the recent Hadley statements do not contravene historic U.S. assurances. Dean Rust, who retired from the department in 2005, e-mailed Arms Control Today June 23 that the statements are “sufficiently ambiguous as to how [the United States] might hold someone ‘accountable’ for the specified actions.” He added, “[M]oreover, a [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)] non-nuclear-weapon state that deliberately aided a terrorist group to acquire or use nuclear weapons would be in violation of at least the spirit if not the letter of the NPT, in which case the negative security assurance would no longer apply.”

Other experts, including former South African arms control negotiator Jean du Preez, see the Hadley statements as the latest Bush administration step eroding U.S. negative security assurances. (See ACT, July/August 2007 .) Du Preez, who contends that the administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy indicates the United States might use nuclear weapons to deal with other states’ biological or chemical weapons programs, wrote in a June 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today that the Hadley statement constitutes “a clear abrogation” of U.S. negative security assurances.

Du Preez also questioned how credible the new U.S. threats were, asking “what would be the consequences if evidence shows that an al Qaeda cell in Italy or South Africa is responsible for masterminding, or even worse executing, some sort of WMD attack against the United States or its allies and friends?” Another nettlesome scenario some experts raise is one in which a powerful country such as Russia is somehow implicated in a terrorist WMD attack. Aside from the difficulty of determining if Russia’s role was deliberate, there would be the dilemma of how to respond if it was found at fault. (See ACT, October 2006. ) An October 16, 2006, Defense News article on deterring nuclear terrorists quoted an unidentified former U.S. national security official as saying “a declaratory policy you can’t carry out is the worst thing imaginable.”

Rust said that the new U.S. warnings elevate the importance of the United States being able to accurately trace weapons and material back to their original source. Toward this end, the Bush administration in February requested $30 million as part of its fiscal year 2009 budget request to support a nuclear forensics center established in 2006. The House of Representatives June 18 passed an act to expand that center’s work; the Senate has yet to take up the measure. Some experts calculate that robust forensics capabilities might deter states from transferring nuclear weapons or related materials out of the fear that they would not be able to evade blame if those weapons or materials were used in an attack.