Intel on Nukes in Doubt
Friday March 2, 2007 7:16 AM
By GEORGE JAHN
Associated Press Writer
VIENNA, Austria (AP) -
New doubts are arising about the accuracy of U.S. intelligence on the nuclear
programs in North Korea and Iran, only a few years after faulty warnings about
weapons of mass destruction helped President Bush justify the invasion of Iraq.
Korea agreed earlier this month to dismantle its plutonium-producing
nuclear facilities in exchange for economic aid and security assurances from
the United States
and four other world or regional powers. The pact successfully put aside for
now the possibility of military action.
But the Western standoff
remains tense. The Bush administration says it won't rule out an attack if Tehran refuses to end its
nuclear enrichment program.
However, in both cases,
U.S. intelligence is backing away from at least some of its once-strident
pronouncements raising the tension level with Pyongyang and Tehran - along with
Saddam Hussein's Iraq, members of Bush's ``axis of evil.''
Just weeks after the
Feb. 13 six-nation pact with North Korea,
new U.S. statements suggest
might have overstated a purported secret North Korean second-track nuclear
program. The result was that it derailed what could have been a peaceful
resolution to the North Korean issue more than four years ago.
The U.S. alleged then that North Korea had a large-scale gas centrifuge
plant for uranium enrichment - the same program Iran now is developing. The Bush
administration used that information to scrap a plan developed under the Clinton administration to
supply energy to the North in exchange for its pledge to mothball its plutonium
Tensions rose and Pyongyang withdrew from
the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January 2003, sparking the process that
led to its test of an atomic weapon late last year.
Now, however, Bush
administration officials are toning down assertions that such a program had
been developed. Intelligence official Joseph DeTrani,
in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday belief that
such a program exists was now ``at the mid-confidence level.''
terminology means that analysts have differing views or credible information
exists but has not been fully corroborated. That's a notable departure from the
view of ``high confidence'' that the North was working on such activities.
Assistant Secretary of
State Christopher Hill said Wednesday that the U.S.
knows that North Korea
has bought equipment that could be used only for uranium enrichment. But he
expressed uncertainty about the program's current state.
``How far they've
gotten, whether they've actually been able to produce highly enriched uranium
at this time - I mean these are issues that intelligence analysts grapple
with,'' Hill told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. ``But what
we know is they have made the purchases, and we need to have complete clarity
on this program.''
A U.S. government
official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the subject's
sensitivity, said DeTrani was commenting on
acquisitions for the program and not the program itself, and there was no
change in the intelligence assessment. Varying degrees of certainty were always
reflected in the CIA's judgment, the official said.
The U.S. intelligence community found with ``high
confidence'' in 2002 that North
Korea obtained components that could be used
to enrich uranium. However, there has always been less confidence in the
analysis of what precisely North
Korea planned to do with the components, the
It was a worst-case
scenario when a CIA paper in 2002 stated that the plant ``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.''
The next line of the
paper highlighted the uncertainty, reminding readers that North Korea's
nuclear program was ``a difficult intelligence collection target.''
President Bush said at
the time that Pyongyang
was ``enriching uranium, with the desire of developing a weapon.''
Chief U.N nuclear
inspector Mohamed ElBaradei has been invited to Pyongyang in mid-March
for a visit expected to result in the return of his inspectors after a
The U.S. intelligence record on Iran's nuclear
activities also is being questioned.
Several senior diplomats
familiar with work of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency,
which ElBaradei heads, told The Associated Press that
while U.S. intelligence
helped reveal Iran's
secret nuclear program in 2002, none of the information provided the U.N.
nuclear watchdog by American spy agencies since then had led to meaningful
leads. Still unproven is whether Tehran
is using the cover of a nuclear power plant program to try to make atomic
One of the diplomats -
who, like others demanded anonymity because he was discussing confidential
information - said that in the case of Iran, lack of good intelligence was
due to ``no presence on the ground.'' Intelligence is increasingly scarce
because ``the Iranians have tightened up on their operations'' since the 2002
revelations about their secret uranium enrichment program, he added.
Broad assessments often
hinge on detailed information about equipment, which can be difficult to prove.
For North Korea, a key U.S.
assertion that Pyongyang
was trying to create an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program parallel to
its plutonium operations was based on evidence that the North Koreans had
purchased or were trying to buy thousands of highly machined aluminum tubes, he
said. The CIA cited Iraqi purchases of such tubes to support its assertion
about a purported nuclear weapons program under Saddam.
A CIA fact sheet made
public four years ago claimed ``clear evidence indicating that the North has
begun constructing a centrifuge facility,'' and estimated it could produce
material for at least two or more nuclear weapons a year by 2005.
U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright, who recently visited Pyongyang
and held talks on the North's nuclear program, does not question U.S. assertions that the North bought a few
dozen centrifuges from the same Pakistani black market network that supplied Iran's program.
``However, a large
centrifuge plant likely does not exist; perhaps it never did,'' says Albright
in a report of his Washington-based Institute for Science and International
Security that tracks the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.
The diplomat agreed,
noting it made no sense for the energy-starved North - which is to get the
equivalent of up to 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil under the nuclear
disarmament deal - to run such a program consuming record amounts of power at a
time it was making good progress on its plutonium-based arms program.