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U.S. ramps up the rhetoric, weighs options


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001

WASHINGTON -- With shock setting in and revenge on people's minds, President Bush escalated the rhetoric Wednesday, declaring the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "acts of war" rather than "acts of terror."

"The deliberate and deadly attacks, which were carried out yesterday against our country, were more than acts of terror -- they were acts of war," Bush said after meeting with his national security advisers. "This is an enemy that thinks its harbors are safe. But they won't be safe forever."

Perhaps there was no clearer picture of Bush's message than the military troops scattered on the streets of downtown Washington.

With his comments, Bush appeared to be establishing a case by the United States for full-fledged retaliation against the terrorists, or their protectors.

One option under consideration, according to a source with ties to government officials, is the use of tactical nuclear weapons -- although critics warned against "letting the genie out of the bottle." Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, also put on the table lifting the ban on assassinations of foreign leaders.

In response to whether the term "act of war" carried any legal or constitutional meaning in Bush's judgment, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declined to answer directly. He indicated, however, that the president hadn't ruled out asking Congress for a declaration of war.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said at a news briefing, "Yes, we believe acts of war have been committed against the American people and we will respond accordingly."

As in war, the White House was working to build an international coalition to respond militarily once the identity of the terrorists is known. Administration officials, including Bush and Powell, spoke with several world leaders about the attacks Wednesday, including Palestinian and Israeli officials.

While the administration would not say how the United States would retaliate, it was clear that Bush was looking to hit back hard.

"We face powerful and terrible enemies, enemies we intend to vanquish," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in a videotaped message to all Defense Department employees around the globe.

"The task of vanquishing these terrible enemies, and protecting the American people and the cause of human freedom, will fall to you," he said.

The top suspect in the attacks, American intelligence officials say, is the Saudi terrorist millionaire Osama bin Laden, believed to be living under the protection of the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, Bush vowed that the United States "will use all our resources to conquer this enemy."

That won't be easy.

While the mightiest nation on Earth has the capability to obliterate its enemy many times over, here the enemy is not so easily identifiable. Since Tuesday, scores of people have compared the attacks with Pearl Harbor. With Pearl Harbor, however, America knew the enemy.

If, as is widely suspected, the culprit is the bin Laden organization, the question becomes: How do you attack a well-trained, well-financed war machine with multiple cells around the world? Do you, as Bush suggested in a national address Tuesday night, attack countries that harbor terrorists?

Do you target his training camps, as previous presidents have done?

Or do you assassinate him, embracing a politically charged policy once employed by American intelligence? Israel, which uses the policy against Palestinian terrorist leaders, has raised the ire of the international community. Indeed, it is America's support for Israel that some suspect is behind the attacks.

Still, the assassination option is one that U.S. officials are at least willing to entertain.

Neil Livingston, a counterterrorism expert in Washington, said options under consideration within the administration include sending in Special Operations forces into Afghanistan, if the evidence points to bin Laden.

The administration, he said, also is considering using tactical nuclear weapons in Afghanistan to minimize American casualties.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, said he had heard about the possible use of Special Operations forces but not about using tactical nuclear weapons. "I don't think anybody from any civilized country wants to get the genie out of the bottle," he said. "That would be very dangerous."

Within 48 to 72 hours of the attacks, Livingston said, American intelligence should have identified the culprits. He said that within two weeks the United States would be in a position to retaliate.

After Tuesday's attacks, analysts aren't convinced that Americans would resist a lifting of the ban on assassinations of foreign leaders. "The fact of the matter is there's plenty of appetite today," Livingston said.

Graham, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees America's spy network, said he was "prepared to revisit" the ban. Asked if he supported a reassessment, Powell said, "We have not made such a reassessment. I'll just leave it there."

In the wake of a series of intelligence scandals in the mid-1970s, former President Ford put a stop to the practice of assassinating foreign leaders.

Livingston rejected the word "assassination," however, insisting the killing of a leader of a terrorist organization did not have a political connection. "It's destroying command and control," he said.

Jack Spencer, a defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation, agreed. "It's much easier to kill a dragon by cutting off its head than starting at is tail," he said.

Said Young, "We're not talking about leaders of government. We're talking about terrorists."

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