If we’re going to say that a country is part of the Axis of Evil, suspend relations, and wax belligerent, then it stands to reason that we outta be really really sure we know what we’re talking about. Right?
The Bush administration is backing away from its long-held assertions that North Korea has an active clandestine program to enrich uranium, leading some experts to believe that the original U.S. intelligence that started the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions may have been flawed.
When Bush took office in 2001, a number of top administration officials openly expressed grave doubts about the 1994 accord, which was negotiated by the Clinton administration, and they seized on the intelligence about the uranium facility to terminate the agreement. The CIA provided an unclassified estimate to Congress in November 2002 that North Korea had begun constructing a plant that would produce enough “weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year . . . as soon as mid-decade.”
David Albright, a respected former U.N. inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, issued a report last week in which he likened the intelligence on North Korea’s uranium facility to the discredited intelligence before the invasion of Iraq that Baghdad was building a nuclear program. “The analysis about North Korea’s program also appears to be flawed,” he wrote.
So we terminated the Agreed Framework and danced the Tough Guy dance. Kim Jong-il said Uff-da, booted out the international inspectors, broke the seals on storage facilities where the plutonium rods had been stored, and got busy.
Said another way:
For nearly five years, though, the Bush administration, based on intelligence estimates, has accused North Korea of also pursuing a secret, parallel path to a bomb, using enriched uranium. That accusation, first leveled in the fall of 2002, resulted in the rupture of an already tense relationship: The United States cut off oil supplies, and the North Koreans responded by throwing out international inspectors, building up their plutonium arsenal and, ultimately, producing that first plutonium bomb.
Now we’re dealing with a disarmament situation instead of a containment issue, and it turns out the intelligence was wrong? Flawed? How could the U.S. have made such a stupid mistake?
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 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.”
Dang. Sorry ’bout that, world. Looks like the U.S. went off half-cocked. Again.
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