The Axis Of Bad Intel: Administration Walks Back Claims That North Korea Was Enriching Uranium

Articles in today’s Washington Post and New York Times raise questions about the accuracy of the Bush administration’s claims in 2002 that North Korea had a uranium enrichment program, a charge they used to justify breaking off negotiations.

In July 2004, then-Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly testified before Congress that North Korea was pursuing a uranium enrichment program. But just last week, Kelly’s successor — Christopher Hill — said that, in order to produce highly enriched uranium, “It would require a lot more equipment than we know that [North Korea has] actually purchased.”

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) asked intelligence officials to comment on U.S. assessments of North Korean programs to enrich uranium. Joseph DeTrani, the DNI’s mission manager for North Korea walked back previous claims that North Korea had a uranium enrichment program:

Sir, we had high confidence. The assessment was with high confidence that, indeed, they were making acquisitions necessary for, if you will, a production-scale [HEU] program. And we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid-confidence level, yes, sir, absolutely.

The New York Times today explains what “mid-confidence level” means:

Under the intelligence agencies’ own definitions, that level “means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views” or it is not fully corroborated.

The story of the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence pertaining to North Korea’s nuclear program has received too little attention for an administration with little credibility on threat intelligence. The administration’s handling of the issue offers yet another reason why two-thirds of the American people do not trust its intelligence claims about threats to the United States.

Pete Ogden and Mike Fuchs

UPDATE: Josh Marshall calls it “a screw-up that staggers the mind.”