Chilling as it is to read the search warrant for the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen, we can at least say this much regarding the relevant officials of the Justice Department: They were thorough. The 36-page document goes into all sorts of detail about Rosen’s cultivation of a source, and the comings, goings, phone calls, and messages potentially related to his June 11, 2009 story reporting information on North Korea leaked from a CIA report.
By contrast, the leaked CIA report itself appears to have contained a remarkable amount of slop, to judge by Rosen’s account.
He reported that “the Central Intelligence Agency has learned, through sources inside North Korea” that there were four actions the North Korean regime planned to take in response to a United Nations sanctions resolution that was expected to pass later that week. These four actions:
1) Another nuclear test
2) Reprocessing all North Korea’s spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium
3) A major escalation in North Korea’s uranium enrichment program
4) The launch of another Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile
What’s wrong with this collection of CIA secrets about North Korea? Well, speaking entirely without benefit of classified information, or any sources inside North Korea, I’d argue that the CIA was wrong in the first place to suggest such actions would be responses to UN sanctions. These were actions North Korea was going to take anyway, with or without UN sanctions resolution #1874, which did indeed pass on June 12, 2009, the day after Rosen’s article appeared.
North Korea’s nuclear program is a core element of its totalitarian, weapons-vending, extortionist regime. North Korea has been busy for years with its pursuit of both plutonium and highly enriched uranium for bomb fuel, as well as with the development of ballistic missiles (to deliver the bombs). Also, with such furbelows as vending missiles to Middle East terror sponsors such as Iran and with helping Syria build a plutonium factory — in the form of the clandestine nuclear reactor destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007.
Short of regime change, North Korea is highly unlikely to abandon these endeavors. You don’t need secret intelligence reports to know that; you just have to be able to read the open source histories. The questions turn on the specifics: the where and how and when. When were they going to press ahead with these four steps?
If the message of the CIA report was that all four steps were imminent (in response to the 2009 UN sanctions resolution), then the CIA got at least two of the points wrong. Possibly three.
North Korea’s next nuclear test came not in 2009, nor in 2010, nor 2011, nor 2012, but almost four years later — in February, 2013. The next launch of a Taepodong-2 came in 2012, three years after that sanctions resolution. As for the escalation of uranium enrichment, North Korea advertised it to the world in late 2010 by way of showing off a uranium enrichment facility to a visiting American nuclear physicist, Siegfried Hecker. But when, exactly, did the “escalation” begin? Before or after the 2009 UN sanctions resolution? Unclear.
What does seem a good bet is that this was all part of a long-term program going back to the 1990s, when North Korea was visited by A.Q. Khan, godfather of Pakistan’s uranium-based nuclear program. In 2002, when accused by the U.S. of having a uranium enrichment program, North Korea first confessed to it before denying it, before ultimately going public with it in 2010.
Yes, it is much tougher for U.S. authorities to acquire precise information about North Korea’s weapons projects than to spy on an American reporter covering the State Department. But the zeal with which the Justice Department most inappropriately went after a reporter is exactly the kind of effort one might wish to have the CIA putting into better information-gathering on North Korea. Maybe CIA and Justice should swap portfolios?