Category Archives: IC

Institutional Memory

According to David Sanger in the NYT, some folks in the Administration are thinking very carefully about the “intelligence problem in interdiction”:

bq. Pentagon officials are clearly not eager to confront the Kang Nam 1. The intelligence about what is on board is typically murky. Some say they suspect small arms, which are banned by the United Nations resolution but hardly a major threat. Members of Mr. Obama’s team who served in the Clinton administration remember past embarrassments, including the interception of a Chinese ship suspected of carrying chemical precursors in the early 1990s. When the ship was finally cornered, the cargo turned out to be benign.

That’s the “Yinhe incident”:, for those of you keeping score at home.

“X-posted to ACW”:

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”:

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”:

IC on North Korea: No Consensus on HEU

Speaking of primary sources, here’s the “Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community”: (PDF). It’s already gotten a great deal of attention for A) emphasizing the threat posed by the _global_ — i.e., not just national — economic crisis, and B) stating that al-Qaida in Pakistan has suffered “a succession of blows as damaging to the group as any since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001” at the, um, hands of “America’s flying killer robots”: (The “UK’s, too”: But all that’s been covered elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to how the assessment deals with North Korea.

Right after the major sections on the global economic crisis and “turning the corner” on al-Qaida are some words about “the Arc of Instability.” This seems to be the successor to such colorful geo-political constructs as the “Axis of Evil”: and the “Shi’ite Crescent”:,1518,518131,00.html. Basically, it’s the Middle East plus Pakistan and Afghanistan. Notice which perennial trouble spot is missing!

This is followed by “Rising Asia.” The “rising” part means China and India, but eventually — starting on page 24 in a 45-page document — we do reach a sub-section on North Korea and its nuclear program:

…Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and proliferation behavior threaten to destabilize East Asia. The North’s October 2006 nuclear test is consistent with our longstanding assessment that it had produced a nuclear device. Prior to the test, we assessed that North Korea produced enough plutonium for at least a half dozen nuclear weapons. The IC continues to assess North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment capability in the past. Some in the Intelligence Community have increasing concerns that North Korea has an ongoing covert uranium enrichment program.

And it goes on for a bit from there. But what leaps out (especially with the added emphasis) is the divided and equivocal statement on uranium enrichment.

Update: I forgot to mention it, but this is not entirely new news. For background, see “here”:, “here”:, and “here”: