The continuing controversy over intelligence on Iraq is beginning to spill over into other areas of U.S. national security. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are reporting that North Korea claims to have now produced enough plutonium to develop more nuclear warheads. But these reports also indicate that the CIA has been reluctant to brief the White House on the new information it has collected on North Korea’s nuclear program. Intelligence officials are said to be wary of making concrete judgments about the program in part because they are still smarting from allegations they exaggerated intelligence on Iraq.
In early July, North Korea told the U.S. that it had completed reprocessing 8,000 nuclear-fuel rods. That would provide North Korea with the capability to build five or six new warheads to add to its existing arsenal. Writing in the New York Times, David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker report that the U.S. has collected intelligence information that corroborates the North’s claim. More worrisome are the indicators that the North may be operating a second, clandestine reprocessing facility. North Korea has one declared facility at Yongbyon, but intelligence analysts tell the Times that it has been operating “sporadically” since the North expelled U.N. inspectors.
Consequently, Yongbyon may not have reprocessed all 8,000 rods. That leads officials to suspect that the North has constructed a second reprocessing facility, probably buried deep underground. North Korea is estimated to have between 11,000 and 15,000 deep underground military-industrial facilities. Despite the North’s admission that it has had a clandestine uranium enrichment program for several years, U.S. intelligence has yet to locate that facility.
If North Korea has constructed such a facility, that would make resolution of this issue enormously complicated. Monitoring and verification of any arms control agreement that stipulated dismantling of North Korean facilities would be very difficult. In the worst case scenario involving military force, target location would be a major challenge for military planners.
Christopher Cooper of the Wall Street Journal reports that the White House is pleased by this ambiguity. He was told that confusion and lack of clarity about the status of North Korea’s program isn’t a bad thing. Officials told him that the White House is too preoccupied elsewhere to cope with a North Korean nuclear crisis just now. They prefer to keep the situation from reaching a boiling point at an awkward time.
They seem to think the best way to do that is to attack the CIA’s reporting. Cooper writes that administration officials are saying that intelligence evidence on North Korea’s reprocessing facilities “is weak, perhaps to the point of being worthless.” That seems a dangerous course to follow. It serves only to further undermine the already damaged credibility of U.S. intelligence. The administration could come to regret that during some future crisis in North Asia or elsewhere.