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U.S. Had Doubts on North Korean Uranium Drive
NY Times
Published: March 1, 2007

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 — Last October, the North Koreans tested their first nuclear device, the fruition of decades of work to make a weapon out of plutonium.

For nearly five years, though, the Bush administration, based on intelligence estimates, has accused North Korea of also pursuing a secret, parallel path to a bomb, using enriched uranium. That accusation, first leveled in the fall of 2002, resulted in the rupture of an already tense relationship: The United States cut off oil supplies, and the North Koreans responded by throwing out international inspectors, building up their plutonium arsenal and, ultimately, producing that first plutonium bomb.

But now, American intelligence officials are publicly softening their position, admitting to doubts about how much progress the uranium enrichment program has actually made. The result has been new questions about the Bush administration's decision to confront North Korea in 2002.

"The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently," a senior administration official said this week.

The disclosure underscores broader questions about the ability of intelligence agencies to discern the precise status of foreign weapons programs. The original assessment about North Korea came during the same period that the administration was building its case about Iraq's unconventional weapons programs, which turned out to be based on flawed intelligence. And the new North Korea assessment comes amid debate over intelligence about Iran's weapons.

The public revelation of the intelligence agencies' doubts, which have been brewing for some time, came almost by happenstance. In a little-noticed exchange on Tuesday at a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joseph DeTrani, a longtime intelligence official, told Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island that "we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid-confidence level." Under the intelligence agencies' own definitions, that level "means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views" or it is not fully corroborated.

"The administration appears to have made a very costly decision that has resulted in a fourfold increase in the nuclear weapons of North Korea," Senator Reed said in an interview on Wednesday. "If that was based in part on mixing up North Korea's ambitions with their accomplishments, it's important."

Two administration officials, who declined to be identified, suggested that if the administration harbored the same doubts in 2002 that it harbored now, the negotiating strategy for dealing with North Korea might have been different — and the tit-for-tat actions that led to October's nuclear test could, conceivably, have been avoided.

The strongest evidence for the original assessment was Pakistan's sale to North Korea of upwards of 20 centrifuges, machines that spin fast to convert uranium gas into highly enriched uranium, a main fuel for atom bombs. Officials feared that the North Koreans would use those centrifuges as models to build a vast enrichment complex. But in interviews this week, experts inside and outside the government said that since then, little or no evidence of Korean procurements had emerged to back up those fears.

The continuing doubts prompted the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Wednesday to declassify a portion of the most recent, one-page update circulated to top national security officials about the status of North Korea's uranium program. The assessment, read by two senior intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity in a joint interview, said the intelligence community still had "high confidence that North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment capability, which we assess is for a weapon."

It added, they said, that all the government's intelligence agencies "judge — most with moderate confidence — that this effort continues. The degree of progress towards producing enriched uranium remains unknown, however."

In other words, while the agencies were certain of the initial purchases, confidence in the program's overall existence appears to have dropped over the years — apparently from high to moderate.

It is unclear why the new assessment is being disclosed now. But some officials suggested that the timing could be linked to North Korea's recent agreement to reopen its doors to international arms inspectors. As a result, these officials have said, the intelligence agencies are facing the possibility that their assessments will once again be compared to what is actually found on the ground. "This may be preventative," one American diplomat said.

American intelligence agencies had long known of North Korea's nuclear program employing plutonium, which can make compact weapons but requires large, easily detected reactors. By contrast, uranium warheads tend to be larger, but the technology for enriching uranium is much smaller and easier to hide.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, declined to discuss the decisions to confront North Korea in 2002 or the quality of the intelligence behind that decision, though both have noted previously that North Korea purchased equipment from Pakistan that could only have been intended for use in producing weapons fuel. One former official said that it was Ms. Rice, in a meeting at the C.I.A. in 2004, who encouraged intelligence officials to soften their assessments of how quickly the North Koreans could produce weapons-usable uranium.

"She asked, how did we know about the timing, and they didn't have answers," said the former official. "Did they have Russians and Chinese helping them? No one was sure. It was really a guesstimate about timing."

Different players in the 2002 debate have different memories. John R. Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, who headed the State Department's proliferation office at the time of the 2002 declaration, said in an interview on Wednesday evening that "there was no dissent at the time, because in the face of the evidence the disputes evaporated." Mr. Bolton, one of the most hawkish voices in the administration and a vocal critic of its recent deal with North Korea, recalled that even the State Department's own intelligence arm, which was the most skeptical of the Iraq evidence, "agreed with the consensus opinion."

But David A. Kay, a nuclear expert and former official who in 2003 and 2004 led the American hunt for unconventional arms in Iraq, said he had found the administration's claims about the North Korean uranium program unpersuasive. "They were driving it way further than the evidence indicated it should go," he said in an interview. The leap of logic, Dr. Kay added, turned evidence of equipment purchases into "a significant production capability."

But the doubts were on full display on Wednesday, when Christopher R. Hill, the chief American negotiator with North Korea, testified on Capitol Hill. "If we determine that there is a program, it's got to go," Mr. Hill said, words that were far more tentative than American policy makers have used about the program in the past. Expressing his resolve to get to the bottom of the mystery, he added: "We cannot have a situation where we — you know, they pretend to disarm and we pretend to believe them. We need to run this into the ground." He said that while there was no doubt that North Korea had bought centrifuges from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the rogue Pakistani engineer, there was doubt about "how far they've gotten."

John E. McLaughlin, a former director of central intelligence and the deputy C.I.A. director in 2002, defended the initial North Korean findings as accurate. "At the time we reported this, we had confidence that they were acquiring materials that could give them the capability to do this down the road," he said in an interview. But no one, he added, "said they had anything up and running. We also made clear that we did not have a confident understanding of how far along they were."

That confidence has dropped further because inspectors have been banned from North Korea for four years, nearly as long as they were out of Iraq before their readmittance just before the 2003 invasion. In Iraq's case, intelligence analysts extrapolated from the last information they had to assess what kind of weapons Iraq might be producing.

Outside experts, including David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear arms, have suggested in recent days that something similar happened in North Korea's case. "The evidence doesn't support the extrapolation" to the judgment that North Korea was making crucial strides in its uranium program, Mr. Albright said in an interview. "The extrapolation went too far."

He said administration analysts were right in thinking that Dr. Khan had sold North Korea about 20 centrifuges. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, confirmed that in a memoir published last year. But, Mr. Albright said, intelligence agencies overstated whether North Korea had used those few machines as models to construct row upon row of carbon copies.

His report zeroed in on thousands of aluminum tubes that the North Koreans bought and tried to buy in the early 2000s. The C.I.A. and the Bush administration, the report said, pointed to these tubes as the "smoking gun" for construction of a large-scale North Korean plant for the enriching of uranium. It was assessments about the purpose of aluminum tubes that were at the center of the flawed Iraq intelligence.

In the North Korea case, intelligence analysts saw the tubes as ideal for centrifuges. But Mr. Albright said the relatively weak aluminum tubes were suitable only for stationary outer casings — not central rotors, which have to be very strong to keep from flying apart while spinning at tremendous speeds.

Moreover, he added, the aluminum tubes were "very easy to get and not controlled" by global export authorities because of their potentially harmless nature. So that purchase, by itself, Mr. Albright added, was "not an indicator" of clandestine use for nuclear arms.

David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and William J. Broad from New York.

Original Text