The New York Times front-page story “How U.S. Intelligence Agencies Underestimated North Korea,” from chief Washington correspondent David Sanger and William Broad, does a thorough job of laying-out how the intelligence community has, for nearly two decades, been wrong about the pace of North Korean advances in their nuclear weapons and missile technologies. It’s a song we’ve sung here for most of this year as well.
Between them, Sanger and Broad have been on three Pulitzer Prize-winning teams. Together, they were Pulitzer finalists for an article on nuclear proliferation. So you’d expect an article on intelligence failures to be a bit more substantive than a recitation of analysts’ “inability to foresee the North’s rapid strides over the past several months.” They paraphrase anonymous officials who call the failure to predict the Korean timeline accurately as “among America’s most significant intelligence failures.”
Little discussion of why we’re failing
But the 3,100-word indictment barely attempts to uncover why those failures happened. It is not groundbreaking news that we’ve been underestimating North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un since his ascension to power in 2011. But reporters of this caliber, with their intimate knowledge of the subject and extensive Rolodex of current and former intelligence officials willing to talk on background (and sometimes on-the-record), could have done more to explain these intelligence failures.
Instead, they mention the “why” only in passing. In the 21st paragraph, we read, “The past year, one senior administration official said, had been a ‘humbling lesson’ in the limits of American electronic, satellite and human intelligence operations against a sealed-off society with few computer networks, a high degree of paranoia about American covert action, and a determined young leader.”
In paragraph 42, we get the one indication the authors might understand why we’ve performed so poorly: “Foreign governments almost never succeed in recruiting North Korean scientists as sources because they are rarely allowed to go abroad. The North also appears to have figured out the patterns of some American spy satellites.”
A high school history teacher would demand more elaboration than this.
HUMINT is the key missing ingredient
It is an undisputed fact that human intelligence is an absolutely necessary component of intelligence collection. Signals intelligence, the information pulled from radios, cell phones, emails, and other electronic means, has its limits. Once al Qaeda’s leaders realized we could hear their cellphone conversations and intercept their emails, they started using couriers. Consequently, it took ten years to track-down Osama bin Laden.
According to reports, we only caught up with him because a Pakistani intelligence officer came to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad and provided information to the CIA officers stationed there. But even “walk-ins” like this are not enough. We warn cleared professionals that they are prime targets for recruitment by foreign intelligence services. And just as foreign countries work to infiltrate us, we also work to target information sources in foreign countries.
Those contacts might not bring in a steady stream of gold-plated intelligence, but every piece of information is another piece in the puzzle. And in North Korea we just don’t have that network.
During the Cold War, intelligence gathering was much more straightforward. The CIA, KGB, and the related agencies in allied countries on both sides worked daily to recruit agents from whom they’d receive information. But having embassy from which to work was a key part of the effort, as was working in Europe, where an American doesn’t necessarily stand out.
But North Korea is called “The Hermit Kingdom” for a reason. The central government there automatically assumes everyone entering the country to be a spy, and everyone seeking to travel outside its borders to be a potential defector. Amnesty International calls the DPRK a “mass-surveillance state” and accuses the country of sending those who have attempted to contact the outside world to prison camps. It calls North Korea “a country on lockdown.”
Against these constraints, it is a wonder that western intelligence agencies have any information, let alone information good enough to determine exactly how quickly the country’s nuclear program is advancing. There’s plenty wrong in the U.S. intelligence community. But given what analysts have to work with, bad estimates of North Korean progress isn’t really one of them.