I will speculate that this John Bolton piece is the most accurate we’ll see on the NOKO intelligence flap. Yes, Bolton could be spinning, but my take is that if he is willing to talk, he talks straight. Which may not be a Good Thing for a long pants diplomat.
Washington’s most important person–the Anonymous Senior Official (“ASO”)–was busy last week, briefing reporters on North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.
The North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons through uranium enrichment, an alternative to reprocessing plutonium from spent fuel at the Yongbyon reactor, constituted both a material breach of the 1994 Agreed Framework and an enormous challenge to the hope that it could ever be negotiated out of pursuing nuclear weapons. Based, however, on one public comment and much work by Mr./Ms. ASO, the media last week set about deconstructing a critical strategic concern underlying Bush administration Korea policy. According to their breathless reporting, yet another threat to America was disappearing, revealed as simply more intelligence hype from an administration that apparently did little else in its first term.
The reports raise three separate issues. First, what exactly is the intelligence judgment about North Korea’s enrichment activities, and how valid was it in 2002? Second, what are the implications for the administration’s ongoing negotiations with North Korea? And third, is Mr./Ms. ASO speaking for the Bush administration, or for those elements in the permanent bureaucracy that have consistently opposed key elements of the Bush foreign policy, at least as conducted until recently?
On the first question, concerning North Korea’s enrichment activities, there is actually less here than meets the eye. The only attributable public comment is from Joseph DeTrani, mission manager for North Korea for the Director of National Intelligence, who said that he now had a “mid-confidence level” about North Korea’s program, down from “high confidence.” Mr. DeTrani’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee recounted how, in October 2002, the U.S. confronted Pyongyang “with information they were acquiring material sufficient for a production-scale capability of enriching uranium,” and how North Korea “admitted to having such a program.” Mr. DeTrani continued, “we’ve never walked away from that issue.” Indeed, in 2002, intelligence community officials told me that new evidence erased existing, long-standing disagreements within the community about what the North was up to since the mid-1990s, producing a remarkable consensus that has not, to my knowledge, broken down since.
…And that brings us to the third issue: Where exactly is the administration headed? Mr./Ms. ASO’s identity is by definition unknown, but the view is spreading that this backgrounding is more than the bureaucracy’s ruminations. I have my own unnamed senior officials who tell me it’s not so, but the question remains. President Bush himself must speak, and sooner rather than later, to tell us what he thinks of the intelligence, and the direction of his own policy. Recent polls show his approval rating near 30%, with support among Republicans falling precipitously. If the president’s conservative base erodes further, where will his support come from? From liberal editorialists enthusing about his newfound foreign policy “pragmatism”? Based on my personal experience, the president will not have both.