WASHINGTON—A top Senate Democrat demanded Friday that the Bush administration explain the intelligence it received on North Korea's nuclear weapons program after testimony this week suggested uncertainty about whether the communist regime has acquired the capacity to produce highly enriched uranium.
President Bush has said repeatedly that North Korea has been producing highly enriched uranium, which is used to produce nuclear bombs.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., made the request after testimony before his Senate Armed Services Committee revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies had only "mid-level" confidence that North Korea was secretly pursuing a uranium enrichment effort in addition to a publicly known plutonium program. Both enriched uranium and plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The assessment appeared to mark a shift backward from earlier judgments in which the intelligence community said it had "high confidence" that North Korea was building an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program.
Levin's letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated concern that the Bush administration may have overstated U.S. intelligence about North Korea's nuclear activities in order to justify its hard-line policies toward the reclusive Stalinist regime.
Five former senior U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials who were involved in the issue told McClatchy Newspapers that the U.S. knew that North Korea had bought nuclear equipment from Pakistan and elsewhere. But they said it was never certain whether the North Koreans had managed to assemble what they'd bought into a working uranium enrichment program.
"We knew that they'd bought a lot of stuff to enrich uranium," said one former senior official, who like the others requested anonymity because intelligence on North Korea's nuclear program is highly classified. "But we still aren't sure what, if anything, they've done with it."
Levin also asked Gates and Rice whether any "special assessments" were given to the administration that Congress didn't receive.
"From 2001 to the present, did the Intelligence Community provide special assessments on North Korea's highly enriched uranium program to the State Department, Defense Department, White House, NSC (National Security Council), or the Office of the Vice President?" Levin wrote. "If so, when were such special assessments provided? Please provide copies of those assessments."
Bush alleged that North Korea was enriching uranium at a Nov. 7, 2002, news conference—when there was no intelligence to substantiate his contention, McClatchy reported Thursday.
Bush made similar assertions at three election debates during the 2004 presidential campaign.
In the Sept. 30, 2004, debate at the University of Miami, Bush accused North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il of violating a 1994 nuclear freeze accord with the United States by enriching uranium.
"The breach on the agreement was not through plutonium. The breach on the agreement is highly enriched uranium," Bush said. "That's what we caught him doing."
The administration also cited North Korea's alleged uranium enrichment effort when it decided in December 2002 to cut off shipments of heavy fuel oil that North Korea was receiving in exchange for freezing its plutonium production program under the 1994 agreement.
The cutoff led North Korea to end the freeze. It then expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, who were there to ensure that the regime wasn't building nuclear weapons, harvested enough plutonium for as many as 12 weapons and detonated its first nuclear test explosion in October.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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