Readers of today's Washington Times got a ring-side seat for the latest skirmish between the Bush Administration and elements within the intelligence community.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, administration officials severely criticized recent intelligence assessments on North Korea, describing them as "flawed" and hampered U.S. attempts to avert Pyongyang's attempted nuclear test. Administration sources cited at least 10 major failures in recent intelligence reporting on Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs, indicating that spy agencies essentially got in wrong in assessing the July missile tests, and Monday's efforts to detonate a nuclear device. As the officials told Mr. Gertz:
"...the failures included judgments that cast doubt about whether North Korea's nuclear program posed an immediate threat, whether North Korea could produce a militarily useful nuclear bomb, whether North Korea was capable of conducting an underground nuclear test and whether Pyongyang was bluffing by claiming it could carry one out."
The harshest criticism was reserved for a recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), and two recent assessments produced within the office of the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte. Administration officials claim the weak analysis undermined U.S. and Japanese diplomatic efforts which might have prevented the nuclear test. Armed with better intelligence, they argued, American and Japanese leaders might have been successful in pressing China to use its influence with North Korea, and prevented the underground test.
White House critics are right about the apparent intelligence failure--but only to a point. Admittedly, recent assessments on the DPRK contained serious errors. But poor intel on North Korea reflects decades of difficulty in obtaining reliable information on Kim Jong-il and his regime. North Korea remains one of the most closed societies on earth, and much of Pyongyang's missile and WMD activity remains shrouded by an active (and effective) denial and deception program. As a result, there are numerous intelligence gaps regarding North Korean capabilities and intent--a fact that should be no surprise to the Bush Administration.
In reality, today's critique is more of a retort to the DNI senior staff, considered by many to be the likely source of the recently-leaked NIE on Iraq. Officials who complained about the quality of analysis on North Korea pointed the finger at the DNI's most senior intelligence analyst, Thomas Fingar, who disputed the famous 2002 NIE which claimed that Iraq had large quantities of chemical weapons. According to the officials who spoke with Gertz, Fingar carried over his skepticism to recent reports on the DPRK, resulting in analysis that was heavily flawed. By leaking their criticism to the press, the administration took a direct shot at elements within the intelligence community believed responsible for the recent NIE disclosures on Iraq.
No one--repeat no one--has suggested that Fingar was the source of recent leaks on the Iraq NIE. However, direct criticism of a senior intelligence analyst is a bit unusual, and by singling out Mr. Fingar, the White House is sending a message to both him and his boss, Ambassador Negroponte: improve the quality of your products, and tighten up your staff--or else. A White House that once went out of its way to avoid criticizing the intelligence community is no longer providing top cover for a DNI staff still viewed (to some degree) as a bunch of leakers and malcontents.
On the other hand, it is somewhat unrealistic for the Bush White House-or any administration-to expect an overnight improvement in our analysis of North Korea. As Pyongyang improves its secure communications capabilities, and gains more knowledge about our intelligence collection efforts, it will remain extremely difficult to assess North Korea's actual intentions. The administration has every right to criticize the DNI for poor assessments on the DPRK. But they should also challenge the intelligence community to come up with a concrete plan for improving collection and analysis--and provide the resources required to put the plan into action.
One more thought: among his other duties, Dr. Fingar is also responsible for the office which produces the President's daily intelligence brief (PDB). It will be interesting to see how long Fingar remains in his position, since the White House is clearly giving him a vote of no confidence.