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An undone deal

Did the administration throw out a perfectly good agreement with North Korea because of faulty intelligence?

March 02, 2007

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Or do we? In 2002, the U.S. accused North Korea of having a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. Alleging that the North had cheated on a deal agreed to eight years earlier, Washington cut off heavy fuel oil shipments. In response, Pyongyang accused the Bush administration of reneging on the deal, fired up its mothballed plutonium plant and, last fall, detonated an atomic bomb. Only now are U.S. officials admitting there was some question about the intelligence they relied on.

At the time, the Bush administration seemed confident of its case against Pyongyang. It told Congress in 2002 that the CIA had "clear evidence indicating that the North had begun constructing a centrifuge facility" to spin uranium for nuclear weapons and that the plant could be operational "as soon as mid-decade." In 2003, it told allies the plant was 18 months away from producing the fissile material needed for a bomb.

On Wednesday, however, the chief U.S. negotiator to North Korea, Christopher R. Hill, back-pedaled hard while testifying on Capitol Hill. If the U.S. determines that there is a uranium program, he said, "it's got to go," adding: "How far they've gotten, whether they've been able to actually produce highly enriched uranium at this time ... we need to have complete clarity on this program."

Indeed we do. Did the Bush administration rush to provoke a crisis with North Korea on sketchy evidence, trashing a flawed but workable arms-control agreement? Administration hawks had been on record for years opposing the 1994 deal. Did they "spin" the intelligence to justify preordained policies? Beijing has always disputed Washington's allegations. On the other hand, it's indisputable that North Korea bought centrifuges from Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Cynics may even wonder whether the administration, having opted for a deal with North Korea, may be downplaying for political purposes the significance of the very intelligence it once cited as proof of Pyongyang's malevolence. Some might even ask why it matters what the administration knew then -- and with what degree of certainty -- given that North Korea has already tested a plutonium bomb. It's because the U.S. has declared itself the world's nuclear watchdog, refusing to be bound by the decisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency or the U.N. Security Council.

Yet for the second time, serious questions have been raised about the credibility of U.S. assessments of the potential nuclear threat posed by an enemy nation. Are these charges justified? Given the U.S. need to enlist other nations to adopt sanctions to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and deal with other proliferation challenges, that's a question that demands an answer.

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