Intelligence Failure on Korean Nukes

Bill Gertz reports that the intelligence community badly botched its forecasts on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

Recent U.S. intelligence analyses of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were flawed and the lack of clarity on the issue hampered U.S. diplomatic efforts to avert the underground blast detected Sunday, according to Bush administration officials.

Some recent secret reports stated that Pyongyang did not have nuclear arms and until recently was bluffing about plans for a test, according to officials who have read the classified assessments. The analyses in question included a National Intelligence Estimate a consensus report of all U.S. spy agencies produced several months ago and at least two other classified reports on North Korea produced by senior officials within the office of the Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte. The officials said there were as many as 10 failures related to intelligence reporting on North Korean missile tests and the suspected nuclear test that harmed administration efforts to deal with the issue.

According to officials familiar with the reports, the failures included judgments that cast doubt about whether North Korea’s nuclear program posed an immediate threat, whether North Korea could produce a militarily useful nuclear bomb, whether North Korea was capable of conducting an underground nuclear test and whether Pyongyang was bluffing by claiming it could carry one out.

The failures would be the latest in a string suffered by U.S. intelligence in recent years, as described in a series of government and nongovernment reports. Past stumbles have included missing chances to detect or stop the September 11 attacks, faulty assessments of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs, the failure to predict the 1998 round of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, and overly optimistic predictions of the Iraqi reaction to a U.S. invasion.

Amusingly, John Hinderaker suddenly finds himself pleased with illegal leaks of classified information to the press.

Douglas Hanson is rightly skeptical of this report or, more accurately, this conception of what constitutes “failure” in the intelligence business.

. . . I have never received a guarantee that processed intelligence would be 100 percent accurate. So the question must be asked is: if the strategic intelligence community had accurately predicted the NK test and a hundred other so-called goofs, then what would the National Command Authority (NCA) and the diplomats have done about it?

A fair question, the answer to which is almost certainly “Nothing much.” Better intelligence would not have changed the basic fact that our options are quite limited. Unless, of course, it had come before the DPRK’s program came to fruition in 2002. That would have left open the option of preemption, an entirely different kettle of fish.

Update: I put a strikethrough through “illegal,” given that I have no knowledge of who made the leak, let alone who authorized it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steven Plunk says:

    I read Hinderaker’s post and he didn’t seem “pleased” about the leak but only discussed the issues raised by Gertz’s story.

    I also did not see where this is necessarily an illegal leak. General comments surrounding intelligence reports don’t always violate secrecy.

    Regardless, if these leaks are illegal then those responsible should be held accountable. You can’t pick and choose good leaks and bad leaks.

  2. James Joyner says:


    The title of the post is “Returning the Favor” and the lead is this: “We’ve reported many times on the four-year-long war the CIA has carried on against the Bush administration. Today the administration returned the favor by telling Bill Gertz of the Washington Times that the intelligence community failed to foresee the recent North Korean nuclear test.”

    It’s true, though, that the leak might have been authorized and therefore not illegal.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Well, of course this is a pro-administration leak, since it’s in Gertz’s column. Here’s the way it works – Anything in Wash Times is pro-administration, Anything in Wash Post is anti-administration, and both sides play the NY Times, depending on the reporter.

  4. James Joyner says:

    DCL: That much I know. But a leak can be pro-administration and yet not authorized.

  5. DC Loser says:

    JJ – I’m not so sure about your assumption in this administration since they run such a tight ship.

  6. Tano says:

    “the failures included judgments that cast doubt about whether North Korea’s nuclear program posed an immediate threat”

    Hows that? Does the program pose an immediate threat? By my understanding, the test demonstrated that the program had advanced a bit, but is still a long way from being any sort of an immediate threat, even to neighbors, let alone us.

    “whether North Korea could produce a militarily useful nuclear bomb”

    Has this been determined either? They made a big underground bang. Not exactly the same thing as a “militarily useful nucelar bomb”.

    “whether North Korea was capable of conducting an underground nuclear test and whether Pyongyang was bluffing by claiming it could carry one out.”

    This one may well be valid, but we are still not sure exactly what went boom.

    I dont see much evidence of “badly botching” here. Just another salvo in the ongoing Republican War against Intellegence.

  7. Anderson says:

    Drum has a nice catch:

    As an added bonus, note the attempt to specifically blame the “failures” on Thomas Fingar, formerly of the State Department’s intelligence service, and the one guy who had the gall to get it right on Iraq. I guess this is payback for arguing with Dick Cheney three years ago.

    The bottom line, of course, is that Clinton got NK to quit building bombs, and Bush got them to start up again.

  8. legion says:

    The general consensus (that I’ve seen anyway – plese correct me if I’m wrong) is that the NK blast was likely sub-kiloton, and is therefore being ruled a ‘dud’ and a failure for their nuke program.

    But do we really have any idea (besides NK propaganda, which I don’t trust any more than our own stuff) how big the blast was _supposed_ to be? I mean, yeah – a blast that small would be useless against mainland USA, maybe even too small to rate as a briefcase nuke, but isn’t it about right for a tac-nuke? Like they might want lots of if they were going to try and waltz into South Korea? Or is my tinfoil hat just on a little loose today?

  9. spree says:

    The bottom line, of course, is that Clinton got NK to quit building bombs, and Bush got them to start up again.
    Posted by: Anderson at October 12, 2006 15:32

    The Clinton appeasement program for North Korea included hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, food, oil and even a nuclear reactor. However, the agreement was flawed and lacked even the most informal means of verification.

    In return, Kim elected to starve his people while using the American aid to build uranium bombs. The lowest estimate is that Kim starved to death over 1 million of his own people, even with the U.S. aid program.

    Clinton never got NK to stop building the bombs, they simply lied as they usually do and took our help and continued building.

  10. Bill says:

    That nuclear reactor never got built. It was barely even started. The US Congress was continually late delivering funding for oil shipments to North Korea agreed to in the framework. The US never put substantial effort into various diplomatic overtures to the North Koreans that cost us *nothing*, for instance, signing a treaty to end the state of war between our countries. The US did not lift economic sanctions as agreed to in the framework. The US also has not ever provided any substantial proof of the uranium enrichment program to the North Koreans or the world at large (paging Colin Powell…). For all we know, if it was a nuke at all, it may have been made of reprocessed plutonium, which until the collapse of the framework, was under IAEA seal.

    Anyway wtf happens when you are bamboozled by someone? Perhaps the used car dealer sells you a lemon? You get pissed!

    After a so-so conclusion to the last round of six party talks, when the NKs agreed to at least some limited concessions and responded to some pressure, the bush administration throws on more economic sanctions – of course that pissed them off. They felt betrayed. Wouldn’t you?

    Can’t have it both ways people.

  11. Alan says:

    There are currently eight nations in the world which possess nuclear weapons–the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel (although it will not confirm it). There are currently two nations–Iran and North Korea–which would like to join the “nuclear club”. Not since World War II has any nation ever used a nuclear bomb to attack or defend itself in any conflict. Obviously, the less countries possessing nuclear weapons, the safer the world and less chance for the misuse of such awesome power. However, it is the awesome power of nuclear weapons that is the main attraction for nations which do not have them. Nuclear weapons have historically been used as both a threat and a deterrant to future war. During the cold war years, the continuous political conflict between the then Soviet Union and the United States was always balanced by the power of each to destroy the other. However, the 21st century has brought a whole new set of circumstances which will determine the stability of world peace.

    What are the rules and criteria for which nations may have nuclear weapons and which nations may not have them? Who decides? What are the consequences for not following the rules? These and many other questions concerning nuclear weapons will be addressed in the coming weeks and months regarding Iran and North Korea. The common answer to these questions has always been the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is an international treaty proposed by Ireland and initiated in 1968 and signed by 188 nations to limit the spread of nuclear weapons in the world. All current nations possessing nuclear weapons have signed the treaty except for Pakistan, India and Israel. The treaty contains three major provisions which all signatory nations agreed to abide: non-proliferation; disarmament; and peaceful use of nuclear technology. The enforcer of this treaty for all practical purposes is the United Nations.

    The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is not a great justification to use with nations who wish to possess nuclear weapons. One of it’s major provisions (disarmament) has not even been attempted to be complied with by the five major nuclear powers since it’s enactment in 1968. One could easily argue that even the United States, Russia, and China have not complied with the treaty because of the failure to disarm or at least begin a plan to disarm. Obviously, disarmament of nuclear weapons has never been a feasible or reasonable strategy by this country and will never occur. However, disarmament is still a major component of this treaty and leads to credibility issues when used as an argument against the other major treaty component of non-proliferation. The failure of the major nuclear powers to comply with the treaty obligation to disarm has created major credibility issues with the treaty and provided logical justifications for a nation to pull-out of the treaty and pursue it’s own nuclear arsenal. Another provision of the treaty allows any nation to withdraw from the treaty with a 3 month notice if it feels that “extraordinary events” forces it to do so. North Korea has withdrawn from the treaty on this basis. The third major provision of the treaty allows all nations to develop and possess nuclear power for peaceful purposes only such as energy. Iran has currently cited this provision as it’s true purpose and not the development of nuclear weapons. It is a great disguise for other intentions, which Iran is obviously pursuing.

    The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has many flaws and credibility issues as previously discussed. It is often cited in discussions and debates to prevent nuclear power expansion throughout the world, but in reality, has little basis to stop it. In reality, only the ‘big boys on the block” (United States, Russia and China) have the ability to do so based on their power on the United Nations Security Counsel. It is the “big boys” who will arbitrarily decide who should have nuclear weapons and who shall not have them. If nations like North Korea and Iran are intent on possessing nuclear weapons, only the “big boys” will be able to prevent it. Unfortunately, the United States, Russia and China do not often agree on what is appropriate; and without unanimous agreement, little can be done to prevent nations like North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Condemnation rhetoric not followed by swift and severe political and economic sanctions or even the potential use of military force will not halt North Korea, Iran or any other nation.

    If the United Nations does not act swiftly and effectively to persuade nations like North Korea and Iran to terminate their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, the United States is left with only one option–unilateral military action outside the authority of the United Nations as occurred with the attack against Iraq. President Bush has previously stated that it is unacceptable for the world to live with Iran and North Korea with nuclear weapons. He has already branded nations like Iran and North Korea as members of “the axis of evil” which must be dealt with in the war on terror. There will be no question this time as to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue nations which sponsor terror. He has already stated that the United States has made it’s choice and now Iran and North Korea must make its’ choice. He has already stated that there is nothing left to discuss. If the United Nations does not agree and takes no effective action, the United States will be faced with another question–accept it and live with it or take action on our own to eliminate it! The stakes this time will be significantly higher than the decision to invade Iraq.

    Let’s wakeup America and at least think about it!