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US Intelligence Officials Speak Out on North Korean Uranium Enrichment Program


U.S. intelligence officials say they stand by their assessment that North Korea was pursuing uranium enrichment in 2002. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports.

Once again, the Bush administration finds itself on the defensive about intelligence information cited in the war on terror.

This time, the issue involves North Korea's nuclear capabilities.

In 2002, the White House accused North Korea of secretly pursuing a uranium enrichment capability that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

At a news conference that November, President Bush said North Korea admitted it had a uranium enrichment program.

"Contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, they're enriching uranium, with the desire of developing a weapon," said Mr. Bush. "They admitted to this."

The accusation led to a rift in already tense relations. The United States cut off oil supplies to North Korea, and Pyongyang expelled international nuclear inspectors.

News reports suggest the intelligence community may have overstated the extent of Pyongyang's enrichment activities, but senior intelligence officials deny that was the case.

They say they stand by their original assessment that North Korea was seeking to enrich uranium in 2002. But, they say, since then, it has become harder to assess North Korea's nuclear activities, and to corroborate new evidence.

At a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services committee, Joseph DeTrani, the chief U.S. intelligence official on North Korea, acknowledged the problem. He was questioned by Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat.

REED: "Do you have any further indication of whether that program has progressed in the last six years, one; or two, the evidence, the credibility of the evidence that we had initially, suggesting they had a program rather than aspirations?"

DeTRANI: "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 program. And, we still have confidence that the program is in existence -- at the mid-confidence level, yes, sir, absolutely."

DeTrani did not offer a detailed explanation for the shift from a level of high confidence to one of mid confidence, terms used by intelligence professionals to grade the certainty of their conclusions. But a look at recent history provides some clues.

Since 2002, U.S. and Pakistani officials have dismantled the secret network set up by A. Q. Khan, the former head of Pakistan's nuclear program. The Khan network is believed to have sold nuclear know-how to the North Koreans. And intelligence sources may have been lost, when the Khan network was broken up.

The White House, meanwhile, is downplaying the notion it might have overstated North Korea's nuclear capability in 2002. Spokeswoman Dana Perino says North Korea is "an opaque regime." She also points to the fact that Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon last November. That test did not involve enriched uranium, but another material, plutonium.

All this comes at a time when the Bush administration is facing questions about its assessments of Iran's nuclear capabilities. It is also faced with constant reminders of the flawed intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction that was used to make the case for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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