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Doubt cast on nuclear claims

The U.S. is backing off from some accusations against North Korea and Iran.

By GEORGE JAHN Associated Press
Published March 2, 2007


VIENNA, Austria - New doubts are arising about the accuracy of U.S. intelligence on the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, only a few years after faulty warnings about weapons of mass destruction helped President Bush justify the invasion of Iraq.

North Korea agreed last month to dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear facilities in exchange for economic aid and security assurances from the United States and four other world or regional powers. The pact successfully put aside for now the possibility of military action.

But the standoff with Iran remains tense. The Bush administration says it won't rule out an attack if Tehran refuses to end its nuclear enrichment program.

However, in both cases, U.S. intelligence is backing away from at least some of its once-strident pronouncements raising the tension level with Pyongyang and Tehran.

Just weeks after the Feb. 13 six-nation pact with North Korea, new U.S. statements suggest that Washington might have overstated a purported secret North Korean second-track nuclear program. The result was that it derailed what could have been a peaceful resolution to the issue more than four years ago.

The United States alleged then that North Korea had a large-scale gas centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment - the same program Iran now is developing. The Bush administration used that information to scrap a plan developed under the Clinton administration to supply energy to the North in exchange for its pledge to mothball its plutonium program.

Tensions rose and Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January 2003, sparking the process that led to its test of an atomic weapon late last year.

Now, however, Bush administration officials are toning down assertions that such a program had been developed. Intelligence official Joseph DeTrani, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday belief that such a program exists was now "at the mid confidence level."

The "mid confidence" terminology means that analysts have differing views, or credible information exists but has not been fully corroborated. That's a notable departure from the previous U.S. view of "high confidence" that the North was working on such activities.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said Wednesday that the U.S. knows that North Korea has bought equipment that could be used only for uranium enrichment. But he expressed uncertainty about the program's current state.

It was a worst-case scenario when a CIA paper stated in 2002 that the plant "could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational - which could be as soon as mid decade."

The next line of the paper highlighted the uncertainty, reminding readers that North Korea's nuclear program was "a difficult intelligence collection target."

The U.S. intelligence record on Iran's nuclear activities also is being questioned.

Several senior diplomats familiar with work of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said that while U.S. intelligence helped reveal Iran's secret nuclear program in 2002, none of the information provided the U.N. nuclear watchdog by American spy agencies since then had led to meaningful leads.

Still unproven is whether Tehran is using the cover of a nuclear power plant program to try to make atomic weapons.

[Last modified March 2, 2007, 01:21:22]

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