No Confidence? No Kidding!
The North Korea intel botch is worse than you think.
It's too bad that the U.S. political system offers no way to take a vote of "no confidence," because that describes the state we're living in now. We have come to the point where nothing that the Bush administration says can—or should—be trusted. That is, the government deserves no confidence.
This judgment (which many might view as laughably late) is sparked by stories in Thursday's New York Times and Washington Post quoting senior U.S. intelligence officials saying that North Korea might not have an enriched-uranium program after all.
The revelation is stunning on two levels.
First, it suggests that the Bush administration could have struck a deal to halt the North Koreans' nuclear-weapons program five years ago—before they reprocessed 8,000 nuclear fuel rods into plutonium, before they tested a nuclear bomb for the first time, before they officially became a "nuclear-weapons state."
Second (and this is the reason for the "no-confidence" stamp), it shows that Bush and his people will say anything, no matter whether it's true, in order to shore up a political point. It means that U.S. intelligence has become completely corrupted.
It would be nice to know whether Iran is supplying Iraqi insurgents with particularly deadly explosives. It would be nice to know how far along the Iranians are coming with their (quite real) enriched-uranium program. It would be nice to know lots of things about this dangerous world. Or it would, at least, be nice to have a true sense of how much our intelligence agencies know about such things.
But we don't know how much these agencies know, because we can have no confidence in what the Bush administration tells us they know.
Why are senior officials suddenly saying that North Korea might not have an enriched-uranium program? No new information has come to light on the issue. They are saying this for one reason: President Bush recently agreed to a nuclear deal with the North Koreans; the deal says nothing about enriched uranium (it requires them only to freeze their plutonium-bomb program); so, in order to stave off the flood of criticism from Bush's conservative base, senior officials are saying that the enriched uranium was never a big deal to begin with.
It's unclear whether it was, or is, a big deal or not. But President Bush and his aides consistently claimed it was a big deal from October 2002 until just this week. It was such a big deal to them that they cited it as justification for pulling out of President Clinton's 1994 "Agreed Framework" accord, which had kept North Korea's nuclear reactor under constant monitoring by international inspectors and its nuclear fuel rods kept under lock and key.
After Bush withdrew from the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans booted the inspectors, unlocked the fuel rods, reprocessed them into plutonium, and built at least one atomic bomb (they exploded it in a test last fall) and possibly a half-dozen or so more.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Photograph of Kim Jong-il on Slate's home page by STR/AFP/Getty Images.