U.S. intel ‘black budget’ concedes ‘critical’ ignorance on North Korea, other crucial threats

August 29, 2013

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shown in his "war room" during early 2013 tensions with the U.S. (Reuters/KCNA)

The United States intelligence community's "black budget," which spells out its spending programs and is revealed in an article by Post reporters Barton Gellman, Greg Miller and Julie Tate, seems to confirm something that North Korea-watchers have been telling me for years: The United States has little to no clue what's happening inside the hermit kingdom.

North Korea looks to be the largest of several U.S. intelligence blind spots, based on the "black budget" report, which refers with surprising candor to "gaps" in the U.S. ability to track significant threats. While The Post hasn't reproduced the full list of intelligence gaps, it reports that the black budget cites five "critical gaps" on North Korea alone, the most for any country that has or is pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Those "critical gaps" on North Korea include its nuclear program, its missile development, even the composition of its leadership (imagine if we didn't know who was in charge in, say, Iran). Most troubling of all, The Post paraphrases the U.S. report as saying that "analysts know virtually nothing about the intentions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un." That's a big deal.

Here are some of the other gaps in U.S. intelligence efforts, according to the story:

• The security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons components, which are thought to be regularly transported around the country

• The capabilities of China's next-generation fighter aircraft. That program is thought to remain far behind the U.S. in sophistication but is advancing rapidly, in part through stealing U.S. technological secrets.

• How Russian leadership is likely to respond “to potentially destabilizing events in Moscow, such as large protests and terrorist attacks.”

• Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group that routed the local CIA station in 2011, is apparently mentioned several times in the appraisal of gaps.

• Home-grown terrorists who plan attacks within the U.S. without direct support or guidance from foreign sources. Even before the Boston marathon attacks, the report described efforts to understand the process of homegrown terrorist "radicalization" as one of “the more challenging intelligence gaps.”

• The governments of China and Russia are portrayed as particularly difficult to penetrate.

These gaps are certainly not for want of trying – or for any lack of money, with billions of dollars spent annually on the intelligence black budget. The U.S. document describes extensive and very expensive-sounding efforts to monitor and understand North Korea specifically. Here's The Post's report on what it reveals:

A section on North Korea indicates that the United States has all but surrounded the nuclear-armed country with surveillance platforms. There are distant ground sensors to monitor seismic activity and platforms to scan the country for signs that might point to construction of new nuclear sites. U.S. agencies seek to capture photos, air samples and infrared imagery “around the clock.”

But none of that equipment can answer the really important question: What is Kim planning?

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Max Fisher | August 29, 2013