WASHINGTON (AP) _ Administration officials insist the United States does not plan to use nuclear weapons, but they say President Bush must be prepared to do so to deter attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.
``We all want to make the use of weapons of mass destruction less likely,'' national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday. ``The way that you do that is to send a very strong signal to anyone who might try to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States that they'd be met with a devastating response.''
Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that the United States has never ruled out using nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed enemy, a policy he said should deter any would-be attacker.
``We think it is best for any potential adversary out there to have uncertainty in his calculus,'' Powell said.
Rice, Powell and military and congressional leaders were responding to weekend reports that the Pentagon has told Congress it is studying the possible use of nuclear weapons against countries that may threaten the United States.
The classified ``nuclear posture review'' sent to Congress says the Pentagon is developing contingency plans for using nuclear weapons against countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction.
The report identified seven nations: China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Russia and Syria.
On television talk shows Sunday, administration officials sought to walk a line between asserting America's willingness to use nuclear weapons and calming the public and allies troubled by suggestions the United States might be moving closer to employing them.
The issue was especially sensitive on a day when Vice President Dick Cheney began a 12-country tour that includes stops in a number of Arab states certain to be upset about the targeting of Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Powell said on CBS' ``Face the Nation'' that the report emerged from ``prudent'' planning that must ``give some consideration as to the range of options the president should have available to him to deal with those kinds of threats.''
``Right now, today, not a single nation on the face of the earth is being targeted by an American nuclear weapon on a day-to-day basis,'' Powell said.
``We should not get all carried away with some sense that the United States is planning to use nuclear weapons in some contingency that is coming up in the near future,'' he said. ``It is not the case.''
Powell acknowledged the military was considering whether to ``modify or update or change'' current nuclear weapons to meet new threats.
Rice said on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' that the report emphasizes efforts to make the use of nuclear arms less likely through improved intelligence and conventional weapons.
Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed that the report is ``not a plan.''
``This preserves for the president all the options that a president would want to have in case this country or our friends and allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, biological, chemical or, for that matter, high explosives,'' Myers said on CNN's ``Late Edition.''
Sen. John Warner of Virginia, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would ask the administration Monday to clarify its position. He and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a fellow committee member, painted the document as an outline of options for Bush.
``Frankly, I don't mind some of these renegade nations (thinking) twice about the willingness of the United States to take action to defend our people and our values and our allies,'' Lieberman said.
But, he added on CNN: ``It's very important for the American people or people around the world not to overreact to the news stories.''
News of the report did trigger some consternation and disbelief overseas.
Libya's African affairs minister, Ali Abd al-Salam al-Turiki, told reporters in Cairo he found the report hard to believe.
``I don't think this is true,'' he said. ``I don't think America is going to destroy the world.''
Dmitry Rogozin, a leading Russian lawmaker with close ties to the Kremlin, accused Washington of deliberately leaking word of the report to intimidate Russia. ``They've brought out a big stick _ a nuclear stick that is supposed to scare us and put us in our place,'' he said on NTV television.