Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer called it a declaration "of how seriously the United States would take it in the event that weapons of mass destruction were used."
"It's a reiteration of a statement that has been made previously, but this time it ties it all together to make clear that the United States will indeed respond," Fleischer said.
The threat was contained in a White House document, called the "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction," to be delivered to Congress on Wednesday.
The six-page statement said the United States "reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force — including through resort to all of our options — to the use of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) against the United States, our forces abroad and friends and allies."
That passage intends to threaten U.S. nuclear retaliation as a deterrent to hostile governments, said senior administration officials who briefed journalists about the document Tuesday.
According to CBS News Senior White House Correspondent John Roberts, the policy announced yesterday rests on three pillars:
The policy is consistent with the doctrine of "preemptory self defense" that the administration has recently adopted in explicit form. This permits the use of force to prevent, rather than simply respond to, an attack.
The officials emphasized that the strategy, developed jointly by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and homeland security adviser Tom Ridge, is an overall statement of the Bush administration's overarching principles.
However, the commitment to possible nuclear retaliation is not new.
In a defense department report on American strategy two years agao, the Pentagon stated that, "The U.S. nuclear posture also contributes substantially to the ability to deter aggression against the United States, its forces abroad, and its allies and friends."
"Although the prominence of nuclear weapons in the nation's defense has diminished since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons remain important as one of a range of responses available to deal with threats or use of NBC weapons against U.S. interests," the report read.
The timing of the policy's release, however, coincides with other muscle-flexing by the President Bush designed to show Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the United States is serious about seeing him disarmed.
The White House, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller, feels this public proclamation of U.S. doctrine might dissuade nations and groups from using weapons of mass destruction. In the first Gulf War, the first President Bush apparently issued such a warning to Saddam, and some believe that the president's admonition discouraged Saddam from using biological or chemical weapons against invading U.S. troops.
The White House document gathers into one comprehensive whole several doctrines for prevention, deterrence and defense that Mr. Bush has enunciated since taking office, including a commitment to boost programs aimed at containing the damage of any chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.
The strategy said some unspecified states that support terrorists already have weapons of mass destruction and seek even more "as tools of coercion and intimidation."
"For them, these are not weapons of last resort, but militarily useful weapons of choice intended to overcome our nation's advantages in conventional forces and to deter us from responding to aggression against our friends," the document said.
"We must accord the highest priority to the protection of the United States, our forces and our friends and allies" from weapons of mass destruction, it continued.
In rare agreement with the White House, former Vice President Al Gore embraced his rival's strategy. "As presented, Al Gore feels this is in keeping with America's long-held strategy of using our own weapons of mass destruction principally to dissuade any aggressor from using their WMD arsenal against us," said spokesman Alejandro Cabrera.