Thursday, March 01, 2007

North Korea's Cheatin' Heart?

Maybe, maybe not. It would appear that the evidence that North Korea was "cheating" on its negotiated settlement with the United States during the 1990s is as sketchy as I had always thought it was. Apparently North Korea was, quite possibly, not pursuing a uranium-based bomb at all.

The disclosure underscores broader questions about the ability of intelligence agencies to discern the precise status of foreign weapons programs. The original assessment about North Korea came during the same period that the administration was building its case about Iraq’s unconventional weapons programs, which turned out to be based on flawed intelligence. And the new North Korea assessment comes amid debate over intelligence about Iran’s weapons.

The public revelation of the intelligence agencies’ doubts, which have been brewing for some time, came almost by happenstance. In a little-noticed exchange on Tuesday at a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joseph DeTrani, a longtime intelligence official, told Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island that “we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid-confidence level.” Under the intelligence agencies’ own definitions, that level “means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views” or it is not fully corroborated.

“The administration appears to have made a very costly decision that has resulted in a fourfold increase in the nuclear weapons of North Korea,” Senator Reed said in an interview on Wednesday. “If that was based in part on mixing up North Korea’s ambitions with their accomplishments, it’s important.”

Two administration officials, who declined to be identified, suggested that if the administration harbored the same doubts in 2002 that it harbored now, the negotiating strategy for dealing with North Korea might have been different — and the tit-for-tat actions that led to October’s nuclear test could, conceivably, have been avoided.

The strongest evidence for the original assessment was Pakistan’s sale to North Korea of upwards of 20 centrifuges, machines that spin fast to convert uranium gas into highly enriched uranium, a main fuel for atom bombs. Officials feared that the North Koreans would use those centrifuges as models to build a vast enrichment complex. But in interviews this week, experts inside and outside the government said that since then, little or no evidence of Korean procurements had emerged to back up those fears.
The bolded part is what's key here. Intel agencies screw up all the time. Intelligence is a difficult game, especially when you have counter-intelligence activities that are often almost as sophisticated as the spies' work itself.

What bothers me is that now we've established a pattern. They're not just fools and liars, they appear to be serial fools and liars. I mean, does this sound familiar to anybody else?

But David A. Kay, a nuclear expert and former official who in 2003 and 2004 led the American hunt for unconventional arms in Iraq, said he had found the administration’s claims about the North Korean uranium program unpersuasive. “They were driving it way further than the evidence indicated it should go,” he said in an interview. The leap of logic, Dr. Kay added, turned evidence of equipment purchases into “a significant production capability.”
So. First they cook the intel on Iraq, then on North Korea. Now, somehow, they expect anybody to take them seriously on Iran? Hah.

Even worse is the effect this is likely to have on regional partners like Japan. Japan has pretty wholeheartedly thrown itself into supporting the American position on North Korea, but now we see indicators that Kim Jong-Il might not be the aggressor that the uranium cheating would imply. The whole situation of him getting screwed by the Americans and then responding in turn suggests that he is pretty much exactly as I had always suspected- terrified of losing power and willing to defend it, but neither mad nor overly inclined to gallivanting around the region. Because the Japanese have believed that he is an aggressor, though, they've taken steps that he (and everybody else in the region that dislikes Japan) is almost certain to find threatening in-and-of themselves.

An Asian security dilemma would be an absolute disaster, worse than anything going on the middle east. Everybody knows this, yet it seems like George W. Bush and his neocon cronies may have inadvertantly done their best to start one.

Worst. President. Ever.

(Edit: cred should go to Tapped for mentioning it first.)

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