Some Thoughts on How Not to do WMD Intelligence: Lessons of Politicization After Iraq

New Paradigms Forum

Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation, National Security Council

Seeing accounts appear in the Washington Post of previously unpublished revelations from Pakistani nuclear bomb-maker and international smuggler A.Q. Khan about his knowledge of and assistance to North Korea's uranium enrichment program, I thought it would be interesting for New Paradigms Forum readers to offer some ruminations and reminiscences about DPRK nuclear intelligence and other WMD-related intelligence issues from the period after the Iraq war. I have to be careful what I say here, so please forgive any lack of specificity. (I have embedded quite a few hyperlinks in this text, however, so you can see relevant media reports corroborating certain information. Of necessity, of course, this essay is just an open-source document.)

Just before President Barack Obama took office, I wrote a little essay on the relationship between consumers and producers of intelligence information – that is, intelligence analysts and policymakers. In it, I used the example of the failure of prewar Iraq-related WMD intelligence, and the relative success of prewar Iraq terrorism intelligence, to argue that it is essential to have a closely-engaged and appropriately skeptical relationship between intelligence producer and consumer. Sparked by seeing the recent reports on the activities of A.Q. Khan, however, I thought I'd give an illustration of the sort of relationship I didn't mean.

I. The Significance of Uranium

I joined the State Department in the spring of 2003, back when it looked like the Iraq war was a success. (Remember that feeling? It didn't return until 2008.) One of the more interesting early things on which I worked at what was then called the Bureau of Verification and Compliance (a.k.a. "VC") was the issue of North Korea's uranium-based nuclear weapons program. Just a few months before, in October 2002, the Bush Administration had confronted DPRK officials with evidence of their secret efforts to develop uranium-based nuclear weapons. North Korea didn't take this well: after admitting uranium enrichment work, it promptly expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and completed its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Thereafter, Pyongyang recanted its uranium confession, insisting for years that its officials had been misquoted. (It remained out of the Treaty, however!)

This was a significant issue, because the Clinton Administration had staked its nonproliferation reputation on its 1994 "Agreed Framework" with North Korea – which rewarded Pyongyang for freezing work at its plutonium-production reactor at Yongbyon – but this deal was built upon the assumption that, in effect, the only North Korean problem worth worrying about was plutonium. This issue of the "uranium route" was politically sensitive, because if indeed the North were pursuing uranium bombs while reaping rewards for suspending plutonium work, the Clinton Administration had been taken for a ride by one of the world's foremost nuclear proliferators. This, of course, would have potentially huge implications for current policy, because it spoke to whether it was wiser to take a conciliatory, Clinton-style approach to proliferators or the sort of more confrontational approach preferred by the first-term Bush Administration.

By the autumn of 2003, our bureau had focused upon the North Korean uranium issue as part of our ongoing mandate for doing compliance analysis on behalf of the U.S. Government. Confronting officials in Pyongyang with evidence of some secret procurement work was one thing; reaching an official – and public – judgment that the DPRK had been in violation of the NPT for years, while reaping the benefits of the 1994 Agreed Framework, was quite another. And this is where the State Department's intelligence bureau tried to put on the brakes.

As for the information with which Assistant Secretary of State James Kelley had confronted the North Koreans in October 2002, Mike Chinoy's book Meltdown offers an account of what his sources have claimed the U.S. case then to have been. According to Chinoy, it included North Korea's procurement off a large quantity of high-strength aluminum tubing reportedly perfect for making uranium enrichment centrifuge rotors. As A/S Kelley later put it, "[t]his was not a laboratory effort," but rather a program devoted to developing "thousands" of centrifuges and which "clearly went back a number of years." When we in the VC Bureau tried to move the available intelligence information through the compliance analysis process, however, we encountered fierce resistance from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which apparently did not wish to give the Bush Administration additional grounds upon which to accuse the DPRK of violations.

II. The Political Context: Post-Iraq Games

Let me put this in context. You'll remember that this was mid-2003: the U.S. invasion of Iraq seemed to have been a success, notwithstanding the failure of allied forces to find the WMD arsenal that intelligence analysts in the United States and many other countries had predicted. Some observers predicted that the Bush Administration might turn its eye elsewhere, and would-be proliferator regimes around the world were feeling distinctly nervous. As U.S. forces massed for the Iraq campaign in March 2003, for instance, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi had initiated secret talks with U.S. and British officials about abandoning his WMD programs. While we debated North Korean uranium work with INR, Qaddafi's agents were beginning to reveal Libya's own nuclear weapons program and extensive dealings with the Khan network. For a time, at least, it appeared that nuclear weapons proliferation might be something the United States and its allies could actually deter.

While all this should surely not have been unwelcome in nonproliferation circles, INR – and indeed, it would appear, a good number of the other career bureaucrats in Colin Powell's State Department – did not see things that way. To judge from their behavior, their reaction was one of horror, and of grim determination to prevent "those people" (i.e., Bush Administration political appointees) from acquiring any further proliferation-related causus belli anywhere in the world. At least inside State, at any rate, the bureaucrats closed ranks in an effort to preclude finding proliferation threats in other potential "future Iraqs." Their behavior, in a sense, was thus precisely analogous to that of IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, who later admitted that he had come to see himself as the world's "secular pope," doing "God's work" in order to prevent "crazies" (in the United States, he did not need to add) from having any excuse for war. As with ElBaradei's approach to the nuclear problems that developed with Iran after August 2002, civil and foreign service officials within State let their determination to stymie the Bush Administration lead them far down the path of politicization and manipulative disingenuousness.

I encountered this attitude in dealing with the State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser, whose attorneys assigned to the nonproliferation beat fiercely opposed every effort by political appointees publicly to discuss the actual meaning of Article IV of the NPT – the Treaty's "peaceful use" provisions. Article IV was then beginning to be grossly distorted and politicized by Iran and its apologists in service of the notion that every country has a legal "right" to prepare itself for NPT "breakout" by developing the capability to produce fissile material at will. The State Department's "attorney-advisers" – one of whom in 2004 proudly told British diplomat David Landsman in my presence that he considered it his job not just to offer legal advice but to take policy positions – absolutely refused to countenance making any public challenge to Iran's legal arguments. Indeed, they told us, wrongly and indeed rather absurdly, that no other interpretation of Article IV was "legally available" at all. In fact, however, their position seemed to boil down to politics. As one of them once rather imprudently conceded in the heat of argument, they feared we political appointees were developing a legal case for forcibly taking away Iran's nuclear technology. They were afraid that clearly and pointedly discussing Article IV would lead, in other words, to our making Iran the next target. And this they were determined to prevent.

As I have described in my own subsequently-published account of Article IV legal and policy debates, opposition by these State Department attorneys has helped prevent inter-agency clearance of any U.S. Government position clearly debunking Iran's legal analysis. In fact, the best text I managed to get them to clear, for the 2005 NPT Review Conference, was later the subject of the attorneys' revisionism. Two years later, when I headed the U.S. delegation to the 2007 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting, the Legal Adviser's office would not clear my efforts even to quote my own cleared official U.S. statement in 2005. It was enough to make one's head spin.

But the problem was not limited to Article IV. The U.S. Government had been assessing for years that Iran sought to develop nuclear weapons, but we in VC also encountered fierce opposition from the State lawyers when we sought to take the next logical step: concluding from this that Iran's nuclear work was a violation of Article II of the NPT. One might think this a commonsense conclusion, given what the U.S. Government had already publicly declared about Iran's nuclear weapons program, but it took many months and a huge bureaucratic firefight in order to drive through the banally obvious conclusion of an Article II violation. (Having worked the announcement of our Article II finding into the speeches given by Under Secretary Bolton and Assistant Secretary Paula DeSutter at the 2005 NPT Review Conference, we published it formally, with great relief, in the August 2005 Noncompliance Report it was our job to write on behalf of the government.)

But the State Department's lawyers were not the only ostensibly non-political experts who decided to play politics with their professional advice in order, they imagined, to help forestall "another Iraq." The U.S. Intelligence Community – which, it was then starting to become clear, had humiliated itself by over-reading available information about Iraq's supposedly vast prewar WMD stockpiles – also seemed determined to weigh in, now as eager to downplay potential proliferation threats as it had previously been to overplay them. CIA and INR officials, for instance, fought bitterly to keep Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton from briefing a closed session of the House International Relations Committee on a critical aspect of the CIA's own information and analysis about possible Syrian nuclear activity. One particular INR analyst also insisted upon repudiating the U.S. Government's conclusion in 2003 that Cuba had "at least a limited, developmental offensive BW [biological warfare] research and development effort." Since the relevant intelligence information on Cuba had not changed, however – except perhaps to get more worrisome, for it became clear that Cuban spy Anna Montez had been involved in manipulating Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyses of Cuba – A/S DeSutter held firm with our compliance assessment. (After a bitter standoff, the two sides agreed to disagree: the 2005 Noncompliance Report adopted a "some say … others say" approach to the Cuban biological warfare question.)

The INR Cuba analyst explained at one point that the Intelligence Community had decided to reevaluate everything after Iraq, and this certainly seemed to be the case – though not necessarily to its credit. "No more Iraqs" was the mantra, and systematic threat minimization was apparently now the order of the day. As if to underline the point, the Intelligence Community subsequently hired two disaffected State Department bureaucrats – both policy officials, not intelligence experts, and both well-known for their long-running opposition to Bush Administration policy and spats with political appointees over WMD matters – to be senior intelligence managers. Astonishingly, these two disgruntled policy-makers were placed in charge of the Community's WMD-related analysis. The former head of INR, Thomas Fingar, was also appointed to head the National Intelligence Council, where it became his job to oversee the preparation of all future national intelligence conclusions.

To anyone following these maneuverings, it was thus no surprise to see the subsequent debacle of the unclassified "Key Judgments" of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, the misleading phrasing of which appeared to describe Iran's "nuclear weapons program" as having ended in 2003 – and which thus catastrophically damaged years of patient U.S. and allied diplomatic work in trying to hold Iran accountable for its violations of IAEA safeguards, the NPT, and legally-binding Security Council resolutions. The NIE's slight-of-hand in this regard was to define out of Iran's weapons program the things Tehran had been publicly caught doing and had thereafter declared to the IAEA, no matter that all these activities had been undertaken in support of the country's nuclear weapons ambitions – and were being continued a breakneck speed. (If discovered doing something illicit, in other words, all Iran had to do was admit the violation to the IAEA, and the U.S. Intelligence Community would obligingly define that activity as not being intended for nuclear weapons development.) It was quite silly, and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell tried belatedly to explain what his analysts had really meant, noting that what Iran had halted was in fact only part of its nuclear weapons effort. "So if I'd had until now to think about it, I probably would have changed a thing or two," said McConnell sheepishly. "I think I would change the way that we described the nuclear program," he said. "I would argue, maybe even the least significant portion -- was halted and there are other parts that continue." The NIE's conclusion subsequently collapsed entirely with the revelation in September 2009 of Iran's secret uranium enrichment plant near Qom, and by the beginning of January 2010 even Obama Administration officials were telling the press that they "no longer believe the key finding" of the infamous NIE.

The entirely foreseeable political damage, however, had by then long since been done: the drafters of a single footnote in the unclassified "Key Judgments" had deftly thrown a huge spanner into U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy. Unsurprisingly, the NIE has been consistently misrepresented ever since by Iran's apologists around the world, as proof that Tehran's nuclear provocations aren't worth fretting over. (My favorite example came in the German prosecution of a smuggler for sending nuclear equipment to Iran: in August 2008, a lower court judge issued a ruling dismissing all charges in the case, on the grounds that the U.S. NIE proved that there was no Iranian nuclear weapons program!) In bureaucratic political terms, it was game, set, and match for the politicized bureaucratic counter-insurgency – although a serious setback for the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

III. INR Efforts to Distort DPRK Nuclear Intelligence

To return to the point of my story, our own VC Bureau ran headlong into this same post-Iraq politicization problem with INR and North Korean nuclear intelligence. In this case, however, the principal role of politicized spoiler was played by an INR analyst whom I'll call "Benjamin." (Just for the record, that's not his real name.) Benjamin was not a seasoned veteran of the Intelligence Community and, to my knowledge, had no specialized background. He appeared to be the only person INR had who worked on North Korea, however, and in any dispute with uncouth Bush Administration political appointees his word – to INR – was apparently law. Benjamin feuded constantly with our own DPRK-focused NPT compliance expert, an ex-DIA nuclear intelligence analyst who had a doctorate in nuclear engineering, and whom we took great pains to ensure got the best possible access to sensitive intelligence data. (As it turned out, this sort of thing was in itself a bone of contention with INR: it resented not being able to control what State Department policy officials saw. Independent access by policymakers to intelligence reporting was anathema to them. We fought this attitude at every turn, with a good deal of success.)

Benjamin's relationship with our bureau was a model of some of the pathologies that should not be permitted to develop in an intelligence analyst's dealings with his policy customers. In assessing North Korea's Treaty violations before its withdrawal in 2003, and beginning to prepare our compliance analysis for publication (in both classified and unclassified versions) in the forthcoming Noncompliance Report, our bureau focused upon understanding the nature, scope, and timing of the DPRK uranium program. In this regard, we became very worried not just about the procurement-related information with which A/S Kelley had confronted the North Koreans in October 2002, but also about the possibility of Pakistani assistance to the DPRK effort.

INR's Benjamin, however, would have none of this. No Bush officials would be permitted to validate their disdain for Clinton's Agreed Framework and justify a more confrontational approach to North Korea while he was standing guard! Benjamin not only rejected out of hand our "alarmist" warnings about possible Pakistani assistance to North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but also attacked the very idea that Pyongyang had a uranium program in the first place. To hear him describe it, the procurement information Kelley had taken to Pyongyang was quite inconclusive, and in any event wholly insufficient to justify a finding of consistent DPRK noncompliance with Article II of the NPT since the mid-1990s.

For Benjamin, North Korea felt like Iraq all over again. Aluminum tubes, the reader will recall, were INR's signature issue – deeply wrapped up in intra-bureaucratic politics and the bureau's self-image and politicized public posture as the plucky little organization that had allegedly bucked the Bush-Cheney war machine. INR, after all, had disagreed with a prewar CIA analysis claiming that Iraq's procurement of aluminum tubes was for the construction of uranium enrichment centrifuges. (As it turns out, the CIA apparently indeed got it wrong.) INR had concurred in almost all of the CIA's many other egregious mistakes about Iraq, but INR officials later made much in the press – yes, in the press – about this one particular disagreement, preening in the self-generated limelight and portraying themselves as running the one U.S. intelligence organization that had gotten Iraq right. In debates over the implications of procurement-related North Korean intelligence only a few months after the Iraq invasion, Benjamin now seemed determined to avoid being the first INR analyst to admit that someone's aluminum tubes really were for centrifuges – even, or perhaps especially, if this really were the case. Sadly for us, one could not possibly have picked an analytical question more perfectly designed to push INR's political buttons.

Benjamin's behavior was, frankly, shocking. In meetings during which we discussed these issues in our secure conference room – often in the presence of the VC Bureau's assistant secretary, Paula DeSutter, who vastly outranked him and deserved respect he refused to give any of us – Benjamin routinely shouted us down, sometimes even refusing to let us finish sentences. Our disagreement with his impeccable analysis, he was convinced, was just an attempt skew conclusions for political reasons, and he missed few opportunities to tell us so.

Benjamin's own analysis, however, was deplorable. If one were willing to wade through his ad hominem attacks in search of a real argument, it boiled down to no more than the classic novice's error of mistaking an absence of evidence for the evidence of something's absence – and he only cared about "smoking gun"-level "proof" anyway. (Such was INR's approach to WMD after Iraq.) Making his analytical blindness and institutional arrogance shockingly clear, Benjamin once bellowed at us in a meeting, for instance, that he was certain there was no uranium work going on in North Korea: "If there were, we would have found it!"

Benjamin's analysis was also dishonest. We arranged a meeting in early 2004 with Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking official ever to defect from North Korea. Hwang had defected in 1997, but he had been kept on a tight leash by South Korean security officials during the period of the "Sunshine Policy" with North Korea, when Seoul desperately wanted better ties and officials on both sides of the Pacific still declared the 1994 Agreed Framework to be a resounding nonproliferation success. In early 2004, however, we managed to meet with Hwang without his official South Korean minders, in a secure conference room in Under Secretary Bolton's office. The elderly North Korean calmly described to us having heard, before the autumn of 1996, that the DPRK had reached a deal with Pakistan for the supply of uranium and/or uranium enrichment technology. This, Hwang said, was described to him as having solved Pyongyang's problem of how to build "a few more nuclear bombs" notwithstanding the fact that work at the reactor at Yongbyon had been suspended by the Agreed Framework.

Such a deal was precisely what we had suspected, and precisely what Benjamin had insisted could not be true. He was apoplectic to hear of Hwang's account of a DPRK-Pakistani uranium deal, and insisted that INR would not clear any compliance analysis text that even mentioned the defector. Hwang was an agent provocateur, he declared, and could not be trusted in the slightest. As evidence for this, Benjamin asserted that Hwang's comments in 2004 differed from what he had told officials in South Korea after defecting in 1997, and thus could not be relied upon. Hwang, it would appear, pressed all of INR's political "hot buttons" after Iraq, conjuring up fever dreams of stage-managed defector testimony to neoconservative think-tanks in Washington, ginning everyone up for yet another war. Nor was this INR's campaign alone, for other defenders of Clinton-era concessions to Pyongyang jumped on the bandwagon quite publicly. Slate's Fred Kaplan, for instance, obligingly stepped into the campaign to discredit Hwang, offering a pungent editorial deriding the old man as "North Korea's Ahmad Chalabi."

Benjamin's determination to discredit Hwang, however, went beyond mere disbelief and contrary argumentation. Having by this point learned to distrust Benjamin on all things related to North Korean uranium, we quietly obtained Benjamin's official write-up for the Intelligence Community of Hwang's comments in his meeting with us. We compared these to what Hwang had actually said in our presence. (We, of course, had taken careful notes ourselves, and we had forwarded them to Benjamin to assist his write-up. I'm not even sure Benjamin had actually been there.) We also took the trouble to look up official accounts of what Hwang had actually said years earlier, after his defection. Clearly, INR did not expect us to have access to this reporting, for the results were shocking. (Here's a lesson for intelligence consumers: don't be afraid to track down the underlying documents, and don't let a single analyst control your access to information!)

Benjamin was wrong that Hwang was singing a different tune in 2004 than after his 1997 defection: in fact, his comments on both occasions were quite consistent, although in his more recent ones, free of South Korean minders, he went into greater detail. Moreover, Benjamin had actually deleted from his official account some of the most important comments Hwang had made about the DPRK-Pakistan uranium deal and misrepresented what Hwang had said after defecting. INR's DPRK analyst had, in a word, both lied about Hwang's past comments and falsified his account of Hwang's current ones.

Things had clearly deteriorated to the point where it was almost impossible to have a professional relationship with Benjamin at all. His behavior drove me to describe these problems in an e-mail to then-INR Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Fingar, the only time in my government career I have ever felt compelled to reprove a colleague, in print, to his boss. (Tom didn't even bother to reply.) Thus did INR make itself, on this critical issue, almost entirely useless to the State Department policy bureau most interested in and engaged with the details of WMD-related intelligence reporting. Thanks to INR's politicization, this relationship was a perfect model of dysfunction.

In fairness, it's worth emphasizing that our relationships with other parts of the Intelligence Community were excellent. In my own experience, relations with analysts and managers at the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control (WINPAC) organization – then clearly recovering well from its prewar Iraq problems – were particularly good. I found the WINPAC staff to be professional, well-informed, articulate, respectful, responsive, and constructive – even (or perhaps especially) when we disagreed on interpretive details, as we sometimes did. (Another lesson: careful consumers of intelligence information sometimes will disagree. Intelligence analysis often involves tough judgment calls made on the basis of ambiguous information. Serious intelligence professionals know this, and can handle disagreement.) Dealing with WINPAC couldn't have been a sharper contrast to our experience with INR.

IV. And How Did It All Turn Out?

All this is why I have found it so depressing – in the years since these confrontations – to watch media reports offer ever greater details substantiating many of the very DPRK concerns our sharp compliance analysts at the VC Bureau raised back in 2003. In 2004, it has been reported, the CIA concluded that A.Q. Khan had given North Korea a package of uranium enrichment equipment and supplies much like he had also given to the Libyans. In 2005, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf admitted in an interview that Khan had indeed provided uranium enrichment centrifuges to North Korea, apparently along with a quantity of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feedstock. Reports also surfaced that UF6 found in Libya had been traced back to North Korea, making the North Koreans not just clients of but in fact partners in Khan's uranium-based nuclear weapons proliferation network.

In June 2009, the DPRK admitted that it was indeed enriching uranium, and North Korean officials declared in September that these efforts had reached the "final stage." And just at the end of December, moreover – sparking these unhappy reminiscences – accounts appeared from A.Q. Khan himself, describing North Korea as having had full-scale enrichment underway at least as early as 2002. According to him in fact, Pakistan had arranged a nuclear technology swap with North Korea at some point in the 1990s, pursuant to which Islamabad would help Pyongyang with enrichment in return for the DPRK helping Pakistan fit nuclear warheads to the Ghauri missile (itself already an adaptation of the North Korean Nodong) and develop superfast nuclear detonator switches known as Krytrons. (Does this account sound familiar? As analysts at the Nuclear Threat Initiative recently summarized, "Hwang [Jang-yop]'s claims appeared to be validated by later events, particularly as more details surfaced regarding A.Q. Khan's interactions with North Korea.")

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