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NATO: Defense Ministers Discuss Antiterror Role

Kicking off preparations for NATO's Prague summit in November, the defense ministers of the 19 allies met in Brussels today to discuss how NATO needs to adapt to new challenges. NATO diplomats say much of the talk centered on the "nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction." In his opening statement, NATO secretary general George Robertson acknowledged that to remain relevant, the organization needs to change priorities.

Brussels, 6 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's search for a role in the fight against terrorism after the 11 September attacks in the U.S. may be coming to an end.

Following a call earlier this week by Britain and Spain, supported by Germany, to equip NATO for countering the threat of international terrorism, the defense ministers of the alliance today launched a debate on what such a change would entail.

According to senior U.S. officials, who wished not to be named, much of the discussion today centered on how to deal with threats involving terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.

The officials said there was "widespread agreement" among the ministers on the need to give NATO responsibility for countering this challenge. As one official put it, there was a "remarkable repetition of words" on this around the table.

Ministers agreed to start work on a detailed package of necessary measures, with goals and a timeline expected to be endorsed by the Prague heads of state summit in November.

The U.S. officials quoted above say discussions will cover four larger topics: weapons of mass destruction and ways of countering and responding to the threats they pose; building secure communication capabilities between allies; enhancing the mobility of NATO forces and their ability for sustainable long-term deployment anywhere in the world; and finally, a package to advance conventional capabilities, first among them precision-strike weapons.

U.S. officials stressed the new capabilities would be developed in a fashion that is "mutually reinforcing" with the European Union's efforts to set up its own defense project.

According to the U.S. sources, ministers expressed broad support for a U.S. call for a greater specialization among allies. Officials say this would mean that certain countries, which have certain types of expertise, would primarily add value to the joint effort by developing that particular area of expertise.

Officials also said NATO will need to review its command structures to better adapt them to the new tasks. This review would involve all levels of decision making within the alliance. Again, the review is expected to be formally endorsed by the Prague summit and to conclude by next summer, when its results would be implemented.

Elaborating on the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, one unnamed U.S. official said NATO had so far mostly dealt with chemical weapons and now needs to develop its thinking on how to deal with nuclear and biological dangers.

The official said a "nonspecific" discussion on potential state sponsors of terrorism had also taken place. He said Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Syria had all been mentioned in this context, but that no specific pre-emptive measures had been broached. The possibility of pre-emptive moves against so-called rogue states was raised recently by U.S. President George W. Bush in a speech at West Point.