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.
Intelligence officials are hoping President Bush will make a comment supporting U.S. intelligence agencies’ performance on North Korea, something he has not done to date.
Another analytical shortcoming involved the failure to predict that North Korea would fire its July 4 salvo of seven missiles. One report said North Korea would test a single long-range Taepodong-2 and also did not predict that Pyongyang would fire the missile, which failed 42 seconds into flight, toward an area of the Pacific near Hawaii, the officials said.
The analyses also predicted that China would agree to impose tough U.S. sanctions on North Korea’s arms exports and imports, something that has not occurred. However, the lack of clarity about the issue was one reason both Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not make stronger appeals to officials in China to press North Korea not to conduct the test, the officials said.
“It was an intelligence failure,” said one administration official close to the issue.
Additionally, the weak assessments undermined the recent visit to China by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who did not have good enough intelligence to persuade Mr. Hu that a test was imminent and that he should use his government’s influence on North Korea to stop it. Aides to Mr. Abe are said by U.S. officials to be upset that they could not help Mr. Abe better understand the nuclear test plans before the meetings.
China in 2003 temporarily cut off oil shipments to North Korea, an action Beijing has refused to use again either to prevent the missile tests or the nuclear test.
Carl Kropf, a spokesman for Mr. Negroponte, dismissed as false claims by officials who say U.S. intelligence analysis on North Korea was flawed. “That is absolutely wrong, that we were not tracking this issue for some period of time,” he said.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was not surprised when the nuclear test was carried out, based on his access to intelligence reports.
Mr. Hoekstra said his panel would conduct a review of intelligence analyses before North Korea’s recent reported weapons test, but he noted that intelligence analysts have difficulty in making clear predications about the future, and that past failures, such as those on Iraq’s weapons programs, affected current reporting.
“I think the community is a little bit gun shy,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “They’re being held to a strict standard and as a result are going to caveat everything in the aftermath of Iraq.”
According to officials familiar with the reports, the weak analysis on North Korea is being blamed on Thomas Fingar, the most senior U.S. intelligence analyst within the office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Mr. Fingar, now deputy Director of National Intelligence for analysis, was the lone dissenter in a 2002 national intelligence assessment that stated Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical weapons and carried over the skeptical viewpoint to North Korea’s arms programs.