2005 February 03 Thursday
North Korea Or Pakistan Supplied Uranium To Libya?

Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post reports that the Bush Administration says North Korea exported weapons-grade plutonium to Libya.

North Korea has reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium and appears to have exported nuclear material to Libya, U.S. officials informed Asian allies this week.

The New York Times also passes along the claims of a high level of confidence in this conclusion. Though some in the US government see problems with the analysis.

It is unclear if there are any dissenting views in the government, though some outside experts have accused the administration of overstating intelligence on North Korea. Officials cautioned that the analysis of the uranium had been hampered by the fact that the United States has no sample of known North Korean uranium for comparison with the Libya material. The study was done by eliminating other possible sources of uranium, a result that is less certain than the nuclear equivalent of matching DNA samples.

A day later Glenn Kessler and Dafna Linzer report on dissenters from the official Bush Administration position. A number of experts in the US government and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) do not see the evidence as conclusive by any means.

The Bush administration's claim this week that North Korea appears to have been the supplier of converted uranium to Libya is based on evidence that could just as easily point to Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, as the source, according to analysts and officials familiar with the data.

The Bush Administration does not have a good track record examining evidence about nuclear proliferation. Look at their wildly unrealistic analyses of various pieces of bogus evidence from Iraq's supposed nuclear weapons development efforts before the US invasion of Iraq.

Read the full articles. My interpretation: Pakistan as the source of the uranium is not politically acceptable in the Bush White House. Pervez Musharraf is our friend. He is a friend of democracy. Never mind that he is a dictatorship. He's a good guy who went to Harvard just like Bush did. He's letting us fly over his country to get to Afghanistan. We have agents operating in his country hunting down Al Qaeda. So Pakistan is not and has not done much bad.

By contrast, Kim Jong Il, being pretty blatantly a very bad guy in reality and running an odious regime where lots of people unnecessarily die from hunger, makes a far better choice to blame as a source of enriched uranium. Also, it fits with a larger Bush Administration agenda:

But Albright did not discount the possibility that North Korea may have been the source. "That has been a theory since last spring," he said. "What amazes me is why this is coming out again now, and the timing has to make one suspicious that the information is being used to pressure allies to take a tougher line with North Korea."

We don't know what the level of expertise was of the Department of Energy technicians who examined the samples from Libya. We do not know how politically pressured anyone was to serve up a desired conclusion. But certainly the Bush Administration track record is that the higher ups are willing to lean on the CIA and other agencies to produce desired conclusions. So I do not know what to make of this story.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 February 03 01:17 AM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control

gcochran said at February 3, 2005 9:31 AM:

Unenriched uranium hexafluoride, not plutonium. Making uranium hexafluoride is not the difficult step in making bobm material: it's not a big deal.

The alleged plutonium was a trace contaminant - the idea is that the uranium hexafluoride was made near the North Korean plutonium separation facility. Do I believe it? I might believe the DOE analyst if I talked to him - I certainly don't automatically believe what the Administration says. On the contrary. I can see a couple of possibilities. First, there is no reason there even has to be any plutonium in such a sample: accidental contamination is the only way it could happen. And yes, we could certainly detect trace quantities of plutonium. We might even be able to tell where it was made, if we had samples to match: the isotope ratios may differ enough to act as a signature, although I am not sure about that, also not sure whether we have samples. If you knew enough about the North Korean reactors and how they were used, you could presumably predict those isotope ratios.

Other possibilities: the same thing might have happened in Pakistan (or in a number of other countries), or, most embarrassing, it might be somehow contaminated with plutonium fron Los Alamos. That last is stupid enough to have a certain appeal as an explanation, but I have no idea whether it could be true.

tc said at February 3, 2005 2:12 PM:

From what I saw here, the WP and NYT stories are referring to different objects. The second WP story also brings up a good point: isn't the uranium story recycled from last year? I think you even had a post on it.

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