WASHINGTON, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- U.S. National Nuclear Security Administrator Linton Brooks countered what he called ill-informed charges Wednesday that the Bush administration is seeking new types of nuclear weapons and neglecting non-proliferation efforts.
"Our policy has been commonly misunderstood and occasionally distorted," Brooks said at a Washington conference on nuclear issues.
Brooks said he and his agency have not combated misunderstandings about their direction aggressively enough and vowed to do his best to set the record straight.
Some observers said Brooks' speech went beyond clarification, however, and represented a concrete step away from the administrations' original goals.
"It's quite clear that they have changed their policy," said Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They clearly wanted a whole range of new weapons."
Brooks denied any such ambitions, saying representations of administration weapons research have often been exaggerated.
The stories to which Brooks has objected concern administration efforts to allow research for lower-yield nuclear weapons and hardened earth-penetrating bombs designed to destroy underground targets with minimal collateral damage.
"We sought and gained repeal of the so-called prohibition on low-yield warhead development, which banned research that quote 'could lead to' designs of less than five kilotons," Brooks said. "We did this to get the freedom to explore new concepts without the chilling input on scientific inquiry."
Research programs into both low-yield nuclear bombs and earth-penetrating nuclear weapons were approved by Congress and are currently being carried out.
The administration's proposed 2005 budget contains $$@$!9 million to investigate new nuclear-weapons concepts, including smaller nuclear bombs. The National Nuclear Security Administration has requested $$@$!27 million for 2005 and just less than $$@$!485 million over five years to research earth-penetrating nuclear bombs.
Brooks stressed, however, that further research does not imply that such a weapon could be built in the near future. Any move to go beyond researching low-yield bombs to actually developing them would require congressional approval.
Sidney Drell, a professor emeritus of physics at Stanford University and longtime adviser to the U.S. government on nuclear issues, said that any consideration of low-yield weapons should be avoided.
"Do we really want to support a policy which makes nuclear weapons more usable?" Drell asked at the conference.
Brooks said the United States has always had some low-yield weapons and they have not reduced barriers to nuclear war.
"U.S. research programs (into low-yield weapons) would not blur the lines between nuclear and conventional weapons or make nuclear use more likely," he added.
Brooks said recently funded research into earth-penetrating bombs came at the request of military leaders who have seen potential uses for them against rogue states that hide sensitive sites deep underground. He stressed that the research is preliminary and does not imply that the United States will actually produce new earth-penetrating nuclear bombs.
"Whether it's actually worth doing, we don't know yet," Brooks said. "We don't think we should make a decision until the study is completed."
Some analysts have accused the Bush administration of seeking nuclear weapons that would inflict less collateral damage in an effort to make possible pre-preemptive nuclear strikes against threatening nations.
Brooks dismissed that charge as far-fetched.
"Nuclear pre-emption with a low-yield weapon is fanciful," he said. "I've never heard anyone in the administration who could foresee circumstances under which we would consider nuclear preemption."
Beyond accusations that the administration's research might lower the threshold for nuclear war, the Bush White House has been criticized for potentially compromising non-proliferation efforts with its moves to consider an expanded nuclear capacity.
"By words and deeds, the United States has to be careful not to weaken this non-proliferation system that is already under stress." Drell said. "We have to stop the attitude that nuclear weapons are OK for us, but they're bad in somebody else's hands."
Brooks said he did not think the administration's nuclear moves have encouraged rogue states or terrorist groups to heighten their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. "It seems to me much more plausible that these drives are a response to the overall strength of the United States," Brooks said.
"The one area where I think we have to worry is in ensuring international support among our friends and allies for our non-proliferation commitments and programs," Brooks added.
He said that better public explanations of the administration's true goals would mitigate that damage, however.
Brooks received several questions about the United States' refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban further nuclear testing.
"There is no date in the future at which we plan to resume nuclear testing," Brooks said. He added, however, that the aging U.S. stockpile might make it necessary at some point to verify the effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons and said it would be unwise to prevent the United States from performing the tests necessary to do that.
Drell disagreed, saying, "I see no need for any thought of resuming testing.
"All our allies in NATO, including Britain and France, have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. I think it's time for the U.S. to reconsider this," Drell added.
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