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Nuclear Blackberry?


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PALO ALTO, California (CNN) -- A truly profound debate about American safety and security is flying far below the public radar.

At issue is whether the United States should change its decades-old nuclear policy and pursue a new class of "small nuclear weapons" that could be the size of Blackberries.

Congress has taken up the debate this spring in response to the Bush administration's request for $4 million dollars to research a new kind of nuclear weapon that would be both smaller in size and explosiveness.

In a $2.6 trillion dollar annual federal budget, the proposed $4 million is not a lot of money. But the concept is a big one.

Indeed, despite some efforts to downplay its import, the debate over whether to research small nuclear weapons (some of which are called "bunker busters") could be a tipping point in U.S. nuclear policy.

It could reshape fundamental American military policy and influence the international nuclear debate at a crucial time. (Last month, the once every five years, UN-led international Nuclear Non-proliferation Conference ended in utter failure.)

This debate is important -- and not as simple as some on either side would have it.

Opponents warn that building a new kind of nuclear weapon -- no matter how small in size or explosive capabilities -- will send the wrong signal to the rest of the world just as we are pushing Iran and North Korea to cease all nuclear weapon development.

Opponents also warn that even at home, creating a smaller class of nuclear weapons will blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons even in the minds of our own policy makers and commanders, thus making the nightmarish use of nuclear weapons more likely.

That is especially risky in a world of often bad military intelligence, i.e., the wrong weapons of mass destruction claims that were widely used to justify the Iraqi invasion.

Finally, opponents ask what if these small nuclear weapons end up in the hands of terrorists. Could a terrorist one day put a small nuclear Blackberry in her or his suitcase and get on the New York subway?

Supporters of the Bush administration's proposal argue that in a post-9/11 world, the United States needs to consider not just some, but every possible tool to attack terrorists -- even those who reside in bunkers deep under ground -- to keep the country safe.

Moreover, they argue, it would be naive to believe that other countries are not looking into these options as well.

In many ways, it is ironic that Congress has entered this debate at all. Over the last five years the Bush administration has embarked upon arguably the most significant period of military policy transformation since the early 1960s, from who will serve and how we recruit to the size of our military and how we partner with foreign forces. But Congress has remained largely silent with regard key policy changes.

However, Congress has entered this debate. Significantly, the debate has not fallen simply along partisan lines. Instead, some of the stiffest resistance to the administration's proposal has come not just from Democrats like California
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, but also from Republicans like Reps. Dave Hobson of Ohio, Joel Hefley of Colorado and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania.

The debate currently is intertwined in the larger so-called appropriations debates on how to spend the public's money. This year's final showdown over the issue will likely involve key members of a joint House-Senate conference committee this summer.

But given the fundamental significance of this issue -- it could represent a turning point in U.S. military policy -- the conversation really should involve the American people.

Whether or not to consider building more and new kinds of nuclear weapons in a post-9/11 world should be at least as publicly discussed as the identity of "Deep Throat," Social Security or the so-called nuclear filibuster option.

The outcome could impact not just Iranians and North Koreans, but moms in Minneapolis, teens in Orlando and couples in Seattle.

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