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U.S. Intelligence, North Korea, and Iran

This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.

It illustrates the fact that once nuclear capability is attained, the move to develop a weapon is a political decision, made in secret, detectable only after the fact. Waiting for intelligence about a decision to build a bomb, instead of focusing on nuclear weapons capability, sets the red line where the action can neither be timely detected nor effectively reversed. Earlier this month, the former IAEA deputy director stated that if Iran went the North Korea route, it could build a nuclear weapon in “a month or two.” He noted that “if you go back to the nuclear programs which have been revealed [elsewhere], they all came with a surprise,” and that Iran’s breakout would likely outpace the ability of the international community to respond.

Sanctions don’t get more crippling than the ones imposed on North Korea, but they continue to have no effect on its nuclear weapons program. Over the past year, North Korea conducted another nuclear test; displayed to the world a road-mobile ICBM; and placed a satellite in orbit using its own launch rocket. The 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment states that we “do not know [North Korea’s] nuclear doctrine,” or how it plans to employ its nuclear weapons, but the intelligence community assesses–“with low confidence”–that North Korea would only use them to preserve the regime.

As the Iranian centrifuges continue to spin, and the IAEA finds its demands for effective inspections repeatedly rejected, the P5+1 negotiates with itself, offering new flexibility while Iran engages in what Dennis Ross called last week a “rope-a-dope” strategy. Yesterday, President Obama said it would take “over a year or so” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. In light of past U.S. intelligence failures regarding Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea, one wonders what degree of confidence U.S. intelligence has in the one-year estimate: low, moderate, high, or slam dunk.


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