Monthly Archives: May 2009

Because They Bear Repeating…

I’m moving up “this”: post and “this”: post, in case anyone cares about why this blog went offline for a bit. I think false charges need to be responded to, so I wanna make these a touch more prominent. If you don’t care, please read Josh’s stuff because it’s more interesting.

I am not speaking for anyone or anything except myself.

Unrelatedly, here is, I believe, the shortest music video ever:

Their drummer once told me a pretty funny story about the police searching their van in NC.


Elevated from comments:

“[Rubin wrote something about me a]nd named zero factual errors [in anything I have written]. FAIL.”

*Later Update:*

No one from Brutal Truth had anything to do with this blog post or, to my knowledge, any USFG products.

“A Second Blog”

Man, Elaine Grossman is mean.

I’m glad her recent “GSN piece”: about North Korea linked to “this post”: by Josh, but she didn’t have to refer to this site, humble though it may be, as “a second blog.” Just saying.

Some seem to think that the name of this blog might not be family friendly, but I think they have dirty minds.

This post does not reflect the views of any part of any government.

Josh adds: The possibility, however slight, that this post reflects the views of the Dept. of Parks and Recreation in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, should not be overlooked.

I was certainly flattered by the high-profile attention. So much so that I started hearing this song, playing in my head.

Surprise ≠ Intel Failure

That’s the “does not equal” sign up there.

I overlooked something important “earlier”: when discussing what the U.S. government knew about North Korea’s nuclear test preparations and when they knew it:

bq. There are two possibilities. Either A) the Obama Administration saw some advantage to keeping mum, and turns out to be awfully good at keeping mum, or B) someone missed something they should not have missed.

There is an option C) as well: the intel collectors saw all the signs, but the higher-ups failed to draw the proper conclusions.

There was a scattering of leaks in the days ahead of the test, possibly from South Korean intelligence. And afterward, we “learned that the IC was watching the preparations intently”:,0,7128683.story:

bq. The official said that U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the test facility had witnessed significant activity in the days before the explosion. The United States had positioned an array of high-tech equipment to monitor the test, including Pentagon aircraft equipped to collect atmospheric samples of any nuclear plume.

I believe it. But the Administration took none of the public steps one would expect to happen in advance of a test, not so much to deter the North Koreans as to build international support for a response after the fact. That led some observers to conclude that the timing of the test came as a surprise. “Marcus Noland”:, for example:

bq. “As much as they understood this was going to be an issue, they weren’t ready for a nuclear test in May,” Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said of Mr. Obama and his advisers. “They’re in a situation now where they have to contain and manage a crisis.”

As “noted previously”:, there appears to have been a firm and widely held conviction that North Korea would not test again until it had more plutonium in hand. Potential indications of an imminent test may have been discounted on that basis.

One possible result: the U.S. apparently “did not inform anyone in Japan”: that a test was imminent. Whoops.

For just a moment, let’s turn this blog over to the learned Prof. “Richard Betts”:, ca. 1982:

bq. The principal cause of surprise is not the failure of intelligence but the unwillingness of political leaders to believe intelligence or to react to it with sufficient dispatch.

You see, it pays to be mindful of the classics.

X-posted to “ACW”: See the “comments at ACW”:

There They Go Again

Should the _New York Times_ op-ed page introduce fact-checking? Given recent trends, it really couldn’t hurt.

A couple days ago, the _Times_ ran an “op-ed by John Bolton”: For reasons known only to the author, he chose to revive a “canard about Obama strong-arming Israel into the NPT before it is ready to join”:

I mention this only because it’s in my pet rock collection. It was just one of a series of “questionable representations” “catalogued and dissected at the PONI blog”: earlier today. Among other things, PONI locates “an Israeli account”: of the substance of the Obama-Netanyahu exchange on nuclear opacity. I’ll quote it in full:

On another issue, Obama told Netanyahu at their meeting on Monday that Washington has no plans to change its policy on Israel’s nuclear program, according to an Israeli source.

“At the talks, Obama expressed his deep commitment to Israel’s security and his full adherence to the deep presidential understandings in this area,” the source said.

In 1969, the United States and Israel reached an understanding under which Israel would maintain ambiguity about its nuclear program and would refrain from conducting a nuclear weapons test. In exchange, the U.S. would refrain from pressing Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would require Israel to give up any military nuclear capabilities it had and place the reactor in Dimona under international supervision. These understandings, which have remained in force to this day, form the basis of Israel’s nuclear policy.

In recent weeks, Israeli commentators have expressed fear that the U.S. was planning to change this policy, after a mid-level State Department official publicly declared that Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea should all join the NPT. But this comment was actually mere routine, reflecting America’s commitment in principle to eventual worldwide nuclear disarmament, and was not aimed specifically at Israel.

During his previous term as prime minister, Netanyahu requested and obtained a written commitment from then-president Clinton that the U.S. would preserve Israel’s strategic deterrence capability – a euphemism for nuclear capability – and make sure that its arms control initiatives did not impair this capability. Netanyahu also told Clinton that Israel would not join an American initiative to draft a new treaty that would ban the production of plutonium.

The above account appeared in _Ha’aretz_ five days before Bolton’s op-ed went to print.

PONI observes that op-eds, because of their brevity,

bq. can be frustrating because they do not have to cite or explain their interpretation of facts. Maybe they should.

Roger that. Writers should at least have to justify themselves to an editor. Fact-checking is bad enough on the news side of the house. On the op-ed side, it’s nonexistent.

Another Example

Two days before the Bolton piece, the _Times_ ran an item by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann claiming in part that

bq. the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

This appears to refer to _overt_ “programs to support”: “democracy in Iran”:, whose usefulness has “come into question”: (Human rights and democracy, as “previously noted around here”:, look pretty threatening to some governments.) But these total well short of “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

If Leverett and Mann are referring to some other “well-publicized” program, it has eluded me completely. But maybe I’m not reading the _Times_ attentively enough.

Then, there is the small matter of how to “cancel or repudiate” a covert program in such a way that anyone would know about it.

So what has the Administration done with the Iran democracy programs that people besides Leverett and Mann actually know about? Mostly, they were funded by a supplemental, and never budgeted. It doesn’t appear that all the money was actually obligated (i.e., spent down). So are Leverett and Mann calling for a rescission (i.e., withdrawal of the unspent funds)? It’s not clear.

Perhaps they are expressing concern about the new and amusingly titled “Near East Regional Democracy”: program. Yes, NERD! Right now, it looks like $25 million, to be awarded “on a competitive basis.” Some of that could conceivably go to NGOs in Iran, if they choose to apply. But there is no assurance that they ever will.

Op-ed fact checking: an idea whose time has come.

What To Expect From North Korea

A good place to start might be the “Foreign Ministry statement of April 29”:

In case the UNSC does not make an immediate apology [for the presidential statement condemning the launch of the Unha-2], such actions will be taken as:

Firstly, the DPRK will be compelled to take additional self-defensive measures in order to defend its supreme interests.

The measures will include *nuclear tests* and *test-firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles.*

Secondly, the DPRK will make a decision to build a light water reactor power plant and start the *technological development for ensuring self-production of nuclear fuel* as its first process without delay.

Emphasis added.

We are now at one nuclear test and counting.

-(Why)- Did It Come as a Surprise?

In light of the foregoing statement, today’s test cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. But “people who follow this subject intently”: were taken aback by how soon it happened. One would assume that the preparations were in motion even before April 29, yet we saw nothing in the papers about it. That’s awfully interesting, since the last time a nuclear test was announced to the world as a _fait accompli_ — I’m relying on memory here, so please correct me if I’m wrong — was the first of India’s two rounds of testing in 1998, widely considered in the United States to have been an intelligence failure.

There are two possibilities. Either A) the Obama Administration saw some advantage to keeping mum, and turns out to be awfully good at keeping mum, or B) someone missed something they should not have missed. If it’s the latter, the results may be no more than mildly embarrassing, but it’s still a little disconcerting.

Update: Chosun Ilbo “reports”: that the U.S. and South Korea were keeping a weather eye on the test site. But it’s not clear that they had good indications on timing.

Further update: Thanks to the contributions of readers “here”: and “here”:, it’s clear that Option A, above, is the correct answer. There were a few leaks, but nothing that the community of wonks picked up on the time. Perhaps Option B applies to us. We’ll have to do better, next time.

I had not seen it widely discussed, but would venture that the tacit consensus, “expressed earlier by Sig Hecker”:, was that North Korea was unlikely to test again before completing a reprocessing campaign. Perhaps not, after all.

Now might be a good time to revisit what North Korea is doing on ICBMs and the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

“Cross-posted to ACW”: See the “comments at ACW”:

Timing The Market

The _Post_ quotes Andrei Lankov on the timing of “North Korea’s second nuclear test”:

bq. “This is absolutely predictable, even though I thought they would do it later, allowing some time for tension to mount,” said Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based expert on North Korea who teaches at Kookmin University. “This is part of their usual blackmail tactics, aimed at squeezing more concessions from the United States.”

As Lankov says, that North would take the present opportunity to test a nuclear device is not surprising. They’ve told us as much. That the test comes so soon after the diplomatic breakdown, this time around, is perhaps a bit different, but maybe not so much. Consider: the last time we went through this drill, back in 2006, there was an early-July-to-early-October gap between the (not so) big missile launch and the (not so) big bang underground. This time, we’ve only had to wait from early April to late May. It’s a bit more than a month’s difference, then, if one measures from weapons test to weapons test, rather than from the announcement blowing off the 6PT to the first weapons test.

Anyway, the real surprise is, there were no media leaks about activity at the test site. If there were any, I missed them.

Update: Andrei Lankov is probably the top Anglophone expert on North Korea. I’m not trying to pick on him, or anyone in particular, really. Everyone expected a North Korean nuclear test this year; nobody expected it today.

Further update: If it seems that I’ve underplayed my intended point here, it’s because I’m reluctant to cast aspersions on the hard work of the intelligence community, especially with an argument from silence. Not everything that gets noticed necessarily gets leaked out. But it does seem odd that we heard nothing in the days before the test. The Administration had no interest in appearing to be caught off-guard.

I’ve tweaked the title of this blog entry and the first paragraph, so as not to distract from the intended point.

On A Related Note

Some believe that North Korea’s July 5, 2006 missile tests were timed to the 4th of July holiday here in the U.S. This “some” has never included yours truly: if that was the name of the game, why wait until late in the day of the 4th in the U.S.? Why not seize the morning headlines? To me, it always seemed more interesting that the fireworks display, including the failed TD-2 test, started right after a space shuttle launch. But seeing as it’s Memorial Day today, perhaps there _was_ something to that line of thinking after all. Or perhaps the North Koreans noticed the extra goose they got out of us, and did purposefully today what they did incidentally then.

Here We Go Again?

-It’s too early to say. But at first glance,- it’s already starting to look like Russia vs. the rest on the yield of “North Korea’s second nuclear test”:

Kim Sung-han, a security expert at Korea University in Seoul, estimated the test had a power of one kiloton of explosives, slightly more than the 0.8 kiloton detonation reported in 2006. If correct, that would be a fraction of the size of the blasts from American bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945 — themselves considered small by current standards.

But Alexander Drobyshevsky, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, told RIA-Novosti news agency offered a different estimate, saying that the force of the blast was 10 to 20 kilotons.

We’ve “been here before”: Why?

Update: “Martin Kalinowski”: of Universität Hamburg has a higher estimate than does Kim Sung-han, but he’s still well south of the numbers given by the Russian Ministry of Defense:

bq. Several seismic observatories all over the world recorded an event that took place in the North East of the country. The U.S. Geological Survey determined the event time as 00:54:43 UTC. The location is close to the first nuclear test. The seismic body wave magnitude of 4.7 is larger as compared to the value of 4.1±0.1 in 2006. According to the assessment of Martin Kalinowski, this corresponds to an explosive yield of about 3 to 8 kilotons TNT equivalent with a most likely yield of 4 kt TNT. In 2006 the yield was unexpectedly low with an estimate of 0.5 to 0.8 kt TNT.

I’ll add more as it pops up, time permitting.

Later update: As usual, all the action is at ACW. Jeff has located “three estimates”: via the “International Seismological Centre’s Online Bulletin”: They cluster around 2 to 6 kt. Notably, the result from the Geophysical Survey of the Russian Academy of Sciences is basically in line with the others, and *not* with the announcement of the Ministry of Defense, which appears to float free of all observed data.

For whatever it’s worth, Kim Sung-han’s estimate — as reported in the NY Times and cited above — is also an outlier, but in the other direction.

Geoff has some thoughts about the “potential implications”: of a ~4kt test for weaponization.

Andreas says it took place at a “second test site”:, not far from the first.

Art of the Blown Headline

Back in March, a headline in the _Washington Post_ conflated a North Korean missile test with a nuclear test. ACA’s Peter Crail “blogged it here”:

They’ve done it again, this time with “Iran”:

bq. Correction to This Article
A headline and earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of today’s Washington Post, incorrectly said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had linked a medium-range missile test to his country’s nuclear program.

Not that a connection between Iran’s nuclear and missile programs is in any way implausible — quite the contrary! But it would have been pretty remarkable for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come out and say it.

Keeping Up With The Post-It

The _New York Times_ had a different boner in “their coverage”: of the same event today:

Though she avoided details, Mrs. Clinton was giving voice to a growing concern among administration officials, who have now had time to review the intelligence, that Iran seems to have made significant progress in at least two of the three technologies necessary to field an effective nuclear weapon.

The first is enriching uranium to weapons grade, now under way at the large nuclear complex at Natanz. The second is developing a missile capable of reaching Israel and parts of Western Europe, and now the country has several likely candidates. The third is designing a warhead that will fit on the missile.


Let’s put it this way. If Iran were actually enriching uranium to weapons grade at Natanz, this would have been the biggest buried lede in decades.

Journalism. It’s harder than it looks.

Really, Really Ready

If your memories extend way back to the summer of ’06, by gum, then you might recall “”:, the Federation of American Scientists’ effort to improve on a certain U.S. Department of Homeland Security “website with a similar name”: All built by a summer intern.

The _Washington Post_ wrote it up “here”: The momentarily most famous summer intern in America wrote “her own, fuller version”: of the story, too.

You remember all this, right? Good.

p{float: right; margin-left:2px;}. !/images/100.jpg!

Well, there’s another entrant in the race for most compelling online source of emergency information: the website of Israel’s “Home Front Command”:, conveniently available in four languages. Drop-down boxes (on the left side of the page in the “English version”: lead to straightforward explanations of what to do in case of earthquake, fire, flood, terrorist attack, or ballistic missile warning. Not necessarily in that order.

Also very handy is this “map”: indicating how much time there is to reach a protected space after a missile warning, depending on locality. There’s even a version with “cheery little clip-art figures”: that you can print out, carry around, or perhaps “stick on the fridge”: All very practical.

Raised Middle Finger?

In his first week or two in office, President “Obama told al-Arabiya”: TV, “And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”

As it turns out, he said something slightly different during the “inaugural speech”:

bq. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Just in case you were wondering what BHO thinks of the IRI.

Now, more recently, the President said that “we’ll know within about half a year”: whether Iran’s fist is unclenched:

bq. My expectation would be that if we can begin discussions soon, shortly after the Iranian elections, we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there’s a good faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn’t mean every issue would be resolved by that point, but it does mean that we’ll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach.

Here’s a prediction. By the end of the year — or by October, the date that “leaked out”: “earlier”: — President Obama won’t necessarily get either a clenched fist or an extended hand from Iran. He may catch sight of a more ambiguous digital posture, something that doesn’t foreclose options one way or another, but puts the onus on Washington to do so.

We’d all prefer an either/or deal, but that’s not the most likely thing, really.