War Stories

No Confidence? No Kidding!

The North Korea intel botch is worse than you think.

It’s too bad that the U.S. political system offers no way to take a vote of “no confidence,” because that describes the state we’re living in now. We have come to the point where nothing that the Bush administration says can—or should—be trusted. That is, the government deserves no confidence.

This judgment (which many might view as laughably late) is sparked by stories in Thursday’s New York Times and Washington Post quoting senior U.S. intelligence officials saying that North Korea might not have an enriched-uranium program after all.

The revelation is stunning on two levels.

First, it suggests that the Bush administration could have struck a deal to halt the North Koreans’ nuclear-weapons program five years ago—before they reprocessed 8,000 nuclear fuel rods into plutonium, before they tested a nuclear bomb for the first time, before they officially became a “nuclear-weapons state.”

Second (and this is the reason for the “no-confidence” stamp), it shows that Bush and his people will say anything, no matter whether it’s true, in order to shore up a political point. It means that U.S. intelligence has become completely corrupted.

It would be nice to know whether Iran is supplying Iraqi insurgents with particularly deadly explosives. It would be nice to know how far along the Iranians are coming with their (quite real) enriched-uranium program. It would be nice to know lots of things about this dangerous world. Or it would, at least, be nice to have a true sense of how much our intelligence agencies know about such things.

But we don’t know how much these agencies know, because we can have no confidence in what the Bush administration tells us they know.

Why are senior officials suddenly saying that North Korea might not have an enriched-uranium program? No new information has come to light on the issue. They are saying this for one reason: President Bush recently agreed to a nuclear deal with the North Koreans; the deal says nothing about enriched uranium (it requires them only to freeze their plutonium-bomb program); so, in order to stave off the flood of criticism from Bush’s conservative base, senior officials are saying that the enriched uranium was never a big deal to begin with.

It’s unclear whether it was, or is, a big deal or not. But President Bush and his aides consistently claimed it was a big deal from October 2002 until just this week. It was such a big deal to them that they cited it as justification for pulling out of President Clinton’s 1994 “Agreed Framework” accord, which had kept North Korea’s nuclear reactor under constant monitoring by international inspectors and its nuclear fuel rods kept under lock and key.

After Bush withdrew from the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans booted the inspectors, unlocked the fuel rods, reprocessed them into plutonium, and built at least one atomic bomb (they exploded it in a test last fall) and possibly a half-dozen or so more.

In October 2002, U.S. diplomats confronted North Korean officials with CIA evidence that North Korea had secretly obtained centrifuges from Pakistan and, with them, had started a program to enrich uranium. (If enough centrifuges are assembled in a certain way, they can enrich uranium into bomb-grade material.) The North Koreans confessed—though they later backpedaled and said they were misunderstood. (Even now, there are contradictory accounts of what happened.)

It is indisputable that North Koreans had centrifuges. It is not known—and has never been known—whether they’ve assembled these centrifuges into a cascade that could enrich uranium or, if they have, whether they’ve enriched any.

However, in October 2002, when Bush was looking for any excuse to back out of the Agreed Framework, senior officials said the evidence of enriched uranium was strong.

Now, four and a half years later, when Bush is looking for reasons to justify a deal that’s remarkably similar to the Agreed Framework (except it’s not quite as tight, and the North Koreans have since become a nuclear-armed nation), senior officials are saying the evidence of enriched uranium is weak.

The evidence has always been ambiguous. Before, they hyped it to justify what they wanted to do. Now, they’re downplaying it to justify what they’ve done.

A footnote to this tale reveals the way these people work. It was on Oct. 4, 2002, that then-Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted the North Koreans with the evidence of an enriched-uranium program and allegedly received confirmation. Not until Oct. 17 did Bush reveal this to Congress or the American people.

The reason for the delay was that on Oct. 11, Congress voted on the resolution to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq. The rationale for the resolution was that Saddam Hussein was believed to be building weapons of mass destruction. Had lawmakers known that North Korea (another spoke on the “axis of evil”) was also believed to be building WMD—and was, in fact, much closer to a nuclear bomb than Saddam—they might have hesitated to pass the resolution; they might have viewed the intelligence more skeptically or asked if Bush was about to go to war against the right country.

Does North Korea have a secret enriched-uranium program? Is Iran supplying deadly explosives to Iraqi insurgents? How close is Iran to building its own nuclear weapon? These questions may play a huge role in decisions of war and peace. Not even reasonably well-read citizens have much basis for answering them independently. We have no choice but to rely on what our leaders tell us about intelligence reports. In that sense, it doesn’t much matter what the real answers are, because we have no reason to believe anything the current leaders tell us.

A few congressional committees can step into this breach to some degree, but they often have a hard time asserting their authority when an administration is determined to resist their prying. They should pry harder. Otherwise, for the rest of this presidency (which still has 690 days to go!), we’ll be stomping and stumbling around the world in the dark.