So, Joe DeTrani and Chris Hill admit that the intel on North Korea’s enrichment program is sketchy and all hell breaks loose … (Read the full text
of their testimonies).
Giacomo, Sanger and Broad, Kessler, and Landay all have stories. Cue the outraged editorials by the Washington Post and New York Times lamenting that the Administration might have been fixing the facts around the policy, in the parlance of our times.
Shocked to find gambling in the casino, eh?
Not a single one of these reporters cited the other reporters who beat them to the punch in 2003 and 2005.
After the CIA released a November 2002 estimate claiming that North Korea was constructing a uranium enrichment facility that would be operational by “mid decade,” Barbara Slavin and John Diamond in USA Today and Paul Kerr in Arms Control Today managed to point out that the story was bogus.
Slavin and Diamond started the ball rolling in 2003 with a skeptical US intelligence official:
A U.S. intelligence official says the CIA, which has conducted extensive surveillance of North Korea, is “not certain there even is” a uranium-enrichment plant. [Full text in the comments]
Our own Paul Kerr directly methodically addressed each claim in the detail we’ve come to expect from Arms Control Today, closing with quotes Congressional and State Department officials describing the evidence with the terms of art like “pretty sketchy”:
A former Department of State official told Arms Control Today Sept. 26 that North Korea has probably imported enough components for 3,000-5,000 centrifuges and may have acquired enough for 6,000-7,000.
The former U.S. official, however, cautioned that the number of completed centrifuges in North Korea’s possession is unknown, adding that Pyongyang has most of the key components but may lack certain essential parts. Expressing a bit more skepticism regarding North Korea’s centrifuge holdings, a congressional source familiar with the issue told Arms Control Today in February that, according to U.S. intelligence, Pyongyang probably does not have certain critical items for its program and is apparently making little progress in acquiring them. (See ACT, March 2005.)
Publicly available intelligence assessments regarding a possible North Korean enrichment facility are inconclusive. For example, the CIA reported in November 2002 that North Korea was “constructing a centrifuge facility” capable of producing enough fissile material for “two or more nuclear weapons per year” as soon as “mid-decade.” But subsequent agency reports to Congress covering North Korea’s nuclear programs in 2002 became increasingly vague, saying only that North Korea had the “goal” of constructing such a facility. A similar 2003 assessment said nothing about the program.
Providing yet another view, a knowledgeable former congressional staff member told Arms Control Today Sept. 27 that the Bush administration has never presented any “credible evidence” to relevant congressional staff that North Korea has ever sought to advance its enrichment efforts beyond a research and development program.
The question of whether North Korea has a facility capable of producing uranium hexafluoride could also prove difficult to resolve. The public evidence that Pyongyang possesses such a facility is thin, and the former State Department official described the administration’s intelligence on the matter as “pretty sketchy.” Knowledgeable current and former U.S. officials have articulated differing assessments on the matter both in published accounts and interviews with Arms Control Today.
Paul later noted that when he was talking to officials that he “couldn’t find anyone who would really defend the intelligence.”
Paul’s stories were all duly noted on this blog. So my readers won’t be shocked to learn that the NORK HEU program was not all that some officials said it was (Lookin’ at you, Condi). In a way, I am glad that the Post and the Times were so late to the story—this is exactly why I started the blog.
But hey, if you want to wait 18 months extra to get the real story, that’s your business.
If you want the backstory on the intelligence regarding the NORK enrichment program and how the Bush Administration used to promote certain policy preferences, the place to start is:
Jonathan D. Pollack, “The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework,” Naval War College Review LVI:3, Summer 2003.
For more on the NORK enrichment program, see: David Albright North Korea’s Alleged Large-Scale Enrichment Plant: Yet Another Questionable Extrapolation Based on Aluminum Tubes, February 23, 2007.