We Got Tubed—Again

The Bush administration didn’t just hype flawed intelligence on Iraq. It got North Korea wrong, too. Now Kim Jong Il has the bomb—and the last laugh.

Pool/AFP/Getty ImagesHappiness is a warm gun: Kim Jong Il may not have highly enriched uranium, but he now has enough plutonium to make as many as 12 nuclear bombs.

What once appeared the exception now seems the rule. Officials in U.S. President George W. Bushs administration are gingerly walking back from claims that North Korea was secretly building a factory to enrich uranium for dozens of atomic bombs. The intelligence, officials now say, was not as solid as they originally trumpeted. It does not seem that the North Korean program is as large or as advanced as claimed or that the countrys leaders are as set on building weapons as officials depicted.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The original claims came during the same period officials were hyping stories of Iraqs weapons. Once again, the claims involve aluminum tubes. Once again, there was cherry-picking and exaggeration of intelligence. Once again, the policy shaped the intelligence, with enormous national security costs. The story of Iraq is well known; that unnecessary war has cost thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and an immeasurable loss of legitimacy. This time, the administrations decision to tear up a successful agreementusing a dubious intelligence finding as an excusepropelled the tiny, isolated country to subsequently build and test nuclear weapons, threatening to trigger a new wave of proliferation.

Ive Got a Feeling

The story begins on October 4, 2002. James A. Kelly, who was then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, confronted his North Korean counterparts with evidence of a North Korean uranium enrichment program. U.S. officials said they knew North Korea had purchased centrifuges from Pakistani black marketer A.Q. Khan. This much appears true. Pakistani sources say Khan sold the North Koreans 20 centrifuges. These machines are used to spin uranium gas at high speeds into enriched material for nuclear fuel. But the killer evidence, U.S. officials said at the time, was the importing of thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes. These, they said, must be for a secret production-scale facility because it takes thousands of centrifuges to make enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb in a reasonable period of time, and because the centrifuges must be durable enough to withstand the heat and stress of high-speed spinning.

This would have been a significant development. North Korea was using plutonium produced from its reactor at Yongbyon for its weapons program. Officials and independent experts estimated that up to that point North Korea might have produced enough plutonium for up to two bombs. A separate program to enrich uranium would indicate a regime intent on producing nuclear weapons in large numbers while playing us for fools in phony negotiations.

Transcripts of the ensuing conversation are ambiguous. It is not clear if the North Koreans admitted to the program at some level, or were just asserting their right to such a program. In either case, they did indicate that they wanted to fold the issue into negotiations aimed at ending all weapons programs and normalizing relations between the two countries.

Kelly, tightly bound by restrictions on how much he could say, was not able to pursue this North Korean offer. He flew back to Washington, where his superiors waved the admission as proof of North Korean duplicity and declared the 1994 Agreed Framework null and void.

North Korea got the message. It pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarted its plutonium production reactorshut since the Clinton negotiations in 1994and began producing and reprocessing plutonium. The North may have made enough for five to 12 bombs, detonating one in October 2006.

Was all this really necessary? It appears not.

Here, There and Everywhere

The intelligence that started this chain of events was reported to Congress in a November 19, 2002 estimate. The CIA, the report said, recently learned that the North is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational, which could be as soon as mid-decade.

This finding, according to the Nelson Report newsletter, appears to have been made only after senior officials, including former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, intervened to overrule dissenting views and presented the sketchy evidence as conclusive proof. Just as he did in the run-up to the Iraq war, President Bush went beyond the intelligence findings, claiming at a news conference in November 2002 that contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, theyre enriching uranium, with the desire of developing a weapon. It is the same connecting the dots that took scraps of conflicting intelligence and shaped them into a conclusive finding justifying a pre-existing policy on Iraq.

Some in the press cooperated to amplify the story. The New York Times ran a dramatic 2,800-word story in its Sunday, November 24, 2002, edition that uncritically reported the administrations line. The CIA told Congress that North Korea will produce enough material to produce weapons in two to three years, the paper said, and that the relationship between North Korea and Pakistan now appears much deeper and more dangerous. The story described North Koreas drive in the past year to begin full-scale enrichment of uranium. Citing unnamed sources, the paper reported that by this summer, however, the CIA concluded that the North had moved from research to production and the agencies came back with a unanimous opinion: the North Korean program was well underway. Nowhere in the article was there any hint of dissent or doubt. Other media outlets followed suit, reporting it as fact in stories and reports appearing everywhere.

In time, some journalists probed deeper. A year later, in November 2003, USA Todays Barbara Slavin wrote, U.S. officials say the program appears to be far less advanced than diplomats had feared. And it is not certain there even is a uranium-enrichment plant. Slavin also got the key point: If it turns out that North Koreas uranium production is not advanced, it could be much easier to work out a new deal to end the Norths bomb making efforts.

Bingo. This is exactly the situation we are in now. It is much easier for the North to open up its program for inspection if all they have is what we have known about for 20 years, plus a few centrifuges (and, of course, the plutonium bombs they admit to having since the original agreement collapsed). But few picked up on Slavins story at the time. Administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as well as their supporters in the right-wing think tanks and media, opposed any deal with North Korea. They insisted there was no doubt of a larger, secret uranium program.

This fit the administrations strategy of rejecting negotiated treaties to eliminate weapons in favor of direct action to eliminate regimes. In Cheneys words, We dont negotiate with evil. We destroy it. To get public and political support for coercive actions, they had to portray negotiations as appeasementas weak and foolish. If you cannot trust that the North Koreans wont cheat, they said, how can you possibly have any confidence in a deal with them?

The Long and Winding Road

What about that? Cheating is cheating, isnt it? Yes, but the degree matters: A parking ticket and vehicular homicide are both violations of the law. The first gets you a fine, the second a prison term. In the case of North Korea, 20 centrifuges violates the Agreed Framework, but is not a significant military capability. It takes thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium. North Korea would have to spin its 20 machines (if, in fact, it has actually assembled the parts it appears to have bought) for almost two decades in order to make enough material for even one uranium bomb. But secretly constructing an enrichment factory would be a major breach of the agreement, showing an intention to break out of the negotiated freeze at the earliest opportunity. The first can be stopped with little damage; the latter is a fundamental threat.

It now appears this threat never existed. Bush administration officials hyped the threat, just as they had hyped Iraqs weapons, and earlier, in the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission report, had spun visions of North Korea and Iran building nuclear-tipped missiles by 2003 that could hit the United States.

Dont Let Me Down

With North Korea now agreeing to refreeze its program andif all goes as plannedopen up its complete program to inspection and eventual dismantlement, some administration officials are now climbing down from past claims. On February 27, 2007, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the status of North Koreas uranium-enrichment program, Joseph DeTrani, the North Korea coordinator for the director of national intelligence, said that although they still had high confidence that some procurement had taken place (read 20 centrifuges), the assessment that North Korea was constructing a plant to pump out dozens of weapons was made at only the mid- confidence level. In other words, there was disagreement among the agencies. The tubes may have been for some other purpose (the Iraqi tubes were for rockets, not centrifuges), and there seems to be no hard evidence of plant construction, operation, or enrichment.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin wants to know whats going on. He sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asking, Is this still the intelligence communitys assessment? referring to the 2002 CIA report. If not, why, and when did the intelligence community revise this assessment? What is the current intelligence community assessment?

Its a good question. We need to know what officials knew, when they knew it, and who changed the assessment. We need Congress to conduct an unblinking investigation into the North Korean intelligence that is at least as thorough as the investigations into the rigged Iraqi intelligence. Senator Levin seems to be heading down that road. He also asked for an unclassified and classified chronology regarding the changes in the Intelligence Community views on North Korean highly enriched uranium capabilities since 2002, as well as what was the basis for the assessment that there was an HEU [highly enriched uranium] plant under construction?

The sooner we get to the bottom of this intelligence scandal, the sooner we can restore credibility to our assessments of foreign weapons programs. Then, we might be able to produce policies that meet real threats, not imagined ones.