Another Intelligence Twist

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Friday, March 2, 2007

ONCE AGAIN the Bush administration is being accused of exaggerating intelligence to justify an aggressive policy toward a rogue regime, with disastrous results. In October 2002 the State Department announced that North Korea had acknowledged secretly developing a uranium enrichment program. The next month the CIA reported to Congress that it had "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." On this basis the administration suspended a deal under which North Korea received fuel oil in exchange for freezing a separate program to produce plutonium. Pyongyang responded by restarting that program and producing enough plutonium for a number of nuclear weapons, one of which it tested last October.

Now administration officials are conceding that outside experts may be right when they say that the North probably never constructed a large uranium-enrichment plant. According to the New York Times, a new intelligence update concludes "with moderate confidence" that the uranium program continues, but it says it's not known how much progress has been made. Christopher R. Hill, the principal U.S. negotiator with North Korea, told Congress on Wednesday that it's debatable "whether they've actually been able to produce highly enriched uranium."

Clearly there's a basis for investigation about whether the 2002 CIA estimate was justified. But it's also worth underlining that the issue here is not whether North Korea sought a uranium enrichment capacity. The uncertainty is about how far the program advanced. That distinction makes a difference both in reconsidering the Bush administration's actions in 2002 and judging how the problem should be managed in the new disarmament negotiations with the North beginning next week.

What the administration knew in 2002 -- and what remains uncontested now -- is that North Korea secretly obtained 20 centrifuges for uranium enrichment from Pakistan and purchased other equipment needed to construct a large-scale enrichment facility. When U.S. officials confronted the North Koreans at a bilateral negotiation session, members of a U.S. diplomatic team received what they believed was a defiant confirmation. That tipped an internal administration debate toward hard-liners who all along had wanted to renounce the Clinton administration's "agreed framework" with Pyongyang.

No doubt those hard-liners made use of the CIA's conclusions about a factory under construction. Yet even without that intelligence some action would have been warranted. The United States and its allies were supplying Pyongyang with food and energy on the assumption that its nuclear program was frozen, only to discover that it had covertly begun work in another area. It would have been foolish to ignore such activity by a criminal regime.

Similarly, the weakening of the intelligence about an ongoing uranium program does not mean that the United States can drop the issue in the next phase of negotiations. On the contrary, a crucial test of the diplomatic process will be whether the North will reveal what it did with the centrifuges and other materials it is known to have acquired. Pyongyang's response will show whether it, like the Bush administration, is more inclined to conduct serious negotiations than it was four years ago.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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