Rumors swept through an international conference in Italy on Sunday, September 23. Secretary Rumsfled, it was claimed, had said the United States would use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. American experts at the conference dismissed the story as a misunderstanding. A leading French expert, long involved in French nuclear policy, strongly criticized the notion that such weapons would be needed or useful in this conflict. The secretary had probably been asked, most surmised, if the U.S. excluded the use of nuclear weapons. He must have replied that the United States, at this point, would not exclude or include any response. That , in fact, seems to have been the case. The secretary thought this was a safe response, in line with previous U.S. statements, for example, that would not confirm or deny that a Navy ship carried nuclear weapons.

But in tense times, even a stray remark has wide repercussions. The next day a leading Italian newspaper, La Nazione, headlined on page one, "Rischio Atomica" (Atomic Risk). The paper reported "the USA would not exclude the use of nuclear weapons" in the coming war. Italian TV showed clips of tests of earth-penetrating bombs, accompanied by atomic blasts. Some experts interviewed on television doubted the U.S. would actually use such weapons One retired general came out in support of their use, claiming that they would be necessary to assure destruction of the terrorist sanctuaries.

The English-language press, including the BBC and CNN, made no mention of the story, even on the "crawls" they both now feature at the bottom of the screens to keep pace with all the news. Unless there is something more, the story will fade. In fact, as European delegates at the conference made clear, they doubt this is a serious option. The French delegate said she was "flabbergasted" that anyone would seriously suggest the use of nuclear weapons. But the press attention underscores a lingering European unease.

There is overwhelming sympathy for Americans in Europe, even from those who differ on specific policies, such as missile defense. I found deep, genuine support for America at the conference from officials and experts from Russia, Great Britain, France, Korea, Iran and other nations. Underneath, however, is worry that the United States might go too far.

In private conversations, some pressed me for details. Hadn't the Air Force in the past few years added a tactical nuclear bomb known as the B-61, Mod 11, to attack underground bunkers and hardened sites? Weren't there influential studies advocating the use of nuclear weapons against chemical and biological threats and even some conventional threats? Wasn't there pressure from the nuclear laboratories to develop new types of nuclear weapons? All this was true, I admitted. I emphasized, however, that U.S. leaders would understand the devestating consequences of using nuclear weapons against an Islamic nation, particularly so close to an unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan. They weren't so sure.

They understood the desire to create fear and uncertainty in the minds of Osama bin Laden. But they warned that, at the same time, U.S. leaders must not stir fear and uncertainty among friends and allies. In this war, loose nuclear lips could sink the alliance against terror.

The president would be wise to rule out the use of nuclear weapons explicitly. He should send a strong message to all the states in the region that even these extreme circumstances do not warrant or justify a nuclear attack. If not, some might conclude that if the most powerful nation in the world needs nuclear weapons to counter terrorists, perhaps they did too. The lessons learned from the war could come back to haunt the United States long after Bin Laden is just a terrible memory.


To read related articles click below

Transcript of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" in which he refuses to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against the Taliban, 23 September 2001.

Carnegie Analysis: "Dr. Stephen Younger to Head Defense Threat Reduction Agency" by John Wolfsthal, 10 August 2001

"Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century" Dr. Stephen M. Younger, 27 June 2000

"Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control, Volume I" National Institue of Public Policy, January 2001

"Bill Would Give Push to 'mini-nuke' " Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 October 2000.

Alastair Miller, Fuel for the Fire: Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Terrorism, Nautilus Institute Special Forum 16, 28 September 2001