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”:

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