Chicken Run

Scared Congress Seeks Shelter in Nuclear Henhouse

And since the two sides can't reach an understanding on airport protection, there isn't any. "We haven't done shit about airline security," one member acknowledged bleakly.

Airport security isn't the least of it. Lawmakers are divided on antiterrorist legislation, with liberals worrying about the Bill of Rights and conservatives dithering over allowing the government to paw through people's finances and potentially seize their assets.

With the economy hurtling downhill, the two sides are also bickering over terms of the response package. Like Reagan before him, Bush has embraced a Keynesian approach to defense policy—in short, deficit spending—while the right-wingers wring their hands over injuring the free market and instead favor more and more tax cuts for the wealthy as an economic stimulus.

Republicans face an ideological quandary of their own making. For years, they have strived to reduce the size of government, slashing funding for social programs and returning control to the states. But in the current crisis, they find themselves as cheerleaders for the birth of the most powerful federal government the country has seen since the Second World War. The whole notion of a free market seems especially flimsy if Uncle Sam gets the right to peer through your bank records and freeze your accounts. He might even—the horror—start prosecuting you for tax violations.

Worst of all, a new congressional report reveals that national leaders—including congressional intelligence committees—sat on their hands as the CIA fell to pieces before their very eyes. Not only can't CIA agents speak the language of countries they are supposed to be spying on, but they are not sufficiently motivated even to try spying in the first place.

This has been going on under the oversight of congressional committees, which routinely approve and authorize money. A glimpse into their thinking is contained in the following comments by the senior Republican senator on the Intelligence Committee, Orrin Hatch. Asked recently if he would still support giving assistance to Osama bin Laden, as the U.S. did when the terrorist was fighting communist troops in Afghanistan, Hatch gave a thumbs-up. "It was worth it," he said, adding, "Those were very important, pivotal matters that played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet Union."

That same kind of insight, or lack of it, fuels lawmakers' zeal for the atom bomb. In calling for nukes, they're uprooting decades of policy. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared that "the United States will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon state that is party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, unless the United States or its interests were attacked by such a state allied to a nuclear-weapon state."

As noted by The Washington Post, this declaration has been reaffirmed by every successive administration.

Fast-forward to Indiana GOP representative Steve Buyer's Wednesday press conference, when he told a crowd at the Indianapolis airport that he could see backing limited use of nuclear arms under certain conditions. If you can prove a real link between anthrax and Bin Laden, then "I would support the use of a limited, precision tactical nuclear device. What does that mean? When there are hardened caves that go back a half a mile. . .don't send in Special Forces to sweep. We'd be naive to think biotoxins are not in there. Put in tactical nuclear devices and close these caves for a thousand years."

A couple of weeks earlier, Senator Kyl acknowledged that nukes would mean civilian deaths, but said we should go ahead anyhow and think about using them, even if the U.S. can't determine who launched a chemical or biological attack. "I would probably go a step further and say to all terrorist states that we're probably not going to know exactly where it came from," the AP quotes Kyl as saying, "so we're going to hold them all responsible."

Asked whether the U.S. had ruled out using nuclear weapons, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that historically, "the United States, to my knowledge, has never ruled out the use of nuclear weapons." However, he's never actually suggested using them.

A Pentagon review may well include wording that supports use of small nuclear devices for such things as hitting deep tunnels and caves, according to The Washington Post.

Important conservative military advisers in Washington have urged the Bush administration to keep the nuclear option open. The National Institute for Public Policy (a conservative think tank staffed by among others Stephen Hadley, now Bush's deputy national security advisor and Robert G. Joseph, head of proliferation strategy at the National Security Council) said in a January 2001 report, "U.S. nuclear weapons may be necessary" to deter rogue states and for provide "unique targeting capabilities" including buried or biological weapons targets. "Under certain circumstances, very severe nuclear threats may be needed to deter any of these potential adversaries."

While the U.S. has generally said it won't use nuclear weapons, NATO, of which the U.S. is a member, does include nuclear weapons in its menu of possible responses to a conventional war attack. In April 1996, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said in a statement on the Libyan Chemical Warfare Facility, "If some nation were to attack the United States with chemical weapons, then they would have to fear the consequences of a response from any weapon in our inventory." He added, "In every situation that I have seen so far, nuclear weapons would not be required for response. That is, we could make a devastating response without the use of nuclear weapons, but we would not forswear that possibility."

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