By DR. PETER VINCENT PRY
April 5, 2013
North Korea is threatening to destroy the United States with a nuclear missile strike. Yet there appears to be a consensus among the Obama administration and Republicans on the congressional intelligence committees that such an attack is beyond the capabilities of North Korea. The American people are being assured by their political leaders every night on every news channel not to worry about the possibility of North Korea making a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland.
At this dangerous juncture, it may be useful to remember Pearl Harbor and some other lessons from history.
On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japan delivered a devastating attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Prior to the attack, President Roosevelt’s administration imposed economic sanctions on Japan, intended to cripple Japanese aggression against China, and dismissed bellicose protests from Tokyo as empty rhetoric. The U.S. Navy was confident that it could prevail over Japan in any conflict because the U.S. had more battleships. But Japan’s innovative use of aircraft carriers, a decisive new military technology underestimated by the U.S. Admiralty, enabled Tokyo to sink U.S. battleships in their crushing attack on Pearl Harbor, achieving strategic and technological surprise.
Congressional hearings on the military and intelligence blunders that led to Pearl Harbor informed the National Security Act of 1947 that established the Central Intelligence Agency. Everyone agreed that the United States could not afford another Pearl Harbor in the nuclear age.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Intelligence Community has a long history of underestimating the nuclear capabilities of potential adversaries, and even of friendly states too. The CIA was taken by surprise by the first Soviet A-bomb test in 1948, by the USSR’s H-bomb test in 1953, and by Soviet development of the first intercontinental missile and satellite launch in 1957. Israel and South Africa both developed nuclear arsenals without nuclear testing–in Israel’s case a highly sophisticated nuclear arsenal–right under the nose of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Not until the defection of Israeli nuclear weapons expert Mordechai Vanunu did we learn, as reported by the respected Wisconsin Project, that Israel has developed miniaturized nuclear warheads for delivery by missiles and artillery, powerful thermonuclear warheads, and neutron warheads–all without nuclear testing. The U.S. Intelligence Community was surprised by nuclear tests and rapid weaponization by Pakistan and India in 1998. The U.S. Intelligence Community was surprised to discover that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was only six months away from developing an atomic bomb when the U.S. defeated Iraq in the First Persian Gulf War. This intelligence failure may account for U.S. intelligence overestimation of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program that contributed to the Second Persian Gulf War in 2003.
Perhaps overestimation of the nuclear threat from Iraq in 2003, that resulted in scathing public criticism of the CIA, has strongly reinforced the more usual historical tendency of the U.S. Intelligence Community to underestimate potential nuclear threats. And so today threats by North Korea to make a nuclear missile strike on the U.S. are dismissed as empty rhetoric.
Perhaps too there has been a return of “Group Think” in the U.S. Intelligence Community, that the 9/11 Commission identified as contributing to the intelligence failure that resulted in the September 11, 2001 holocaust, that killed more Americans than Pearl Harbor. “Group Think” occurs when the Intelligence Community suppresses alternative views and differing interpretations in favor of presenting only a single corporate “consensus view” to policymakers and military leaders.
“Group Think” is how Pearl Harbors are made. The 9/11 Commission recommended, and the Congress enacted, major reforms of the Intelligence Community, including recommendations to introduce “B-Teams” and “Red Teams” to counter the dangerous tendency of the Intelligence Community to lapse into “Group Think.”
“Group Think” may be alive and well in the U.S. Intelligence Community–and setting up the American people for a nuclear Pearl Harbor from North Korea.
After all, there is some compelling evidence that North Korea just might be able to deliver on its threat to make a catastrophic nuclear attack on the United States: North Korea has conducted three successful nuclear tests, and has weaponized its nuclear devices into warheads that are deployed on its Nodong medium-range missiles. In December, North Korea successfully orbited a satellite weighing 220 pounds–so they could deliver against the United States, or against any nation on Earth, a small nuclear warhead. A nuclear weapon designed specially to generate a powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP)–a single such “Super-EMP” warhead would be able to collapse the U.S. electric grid and other critical infrastructures, inflicting catastrophic consequences on the entire nation–would probably be deliverable by North Korea’s so-called “Space Launch Vehicle” over the United States. North Korea orbited its satellite on a trajectory and at an altitude ideal for making an EMP attack on the U.S.. The Congressional EMP Commission warned in 2008 that North Korea was developing Super-EMP warheads. South Korean military intelligence has reportedly warned their government repeatedly that North Korea is developing Super-EMP warheads with Russian help. In 2011, a military commentator with the People’s Republic of China stated that North Korea has Super-EMP warheads. Data from North Korea’s nuclear tests are consistent with a Super-EMP warhead.
Moreover, North Korea claims it can destroy the U.S. with a missile strike. Recent TV footage of North Korea’s military headquarters showed a map in the background allegedly depicting their plans for nuclear missile strikes against the United States. South Korean military intelligence reportedly observed that North Korea’s so-called Space Launch Vehicle is included among the general mobilization of the North’s nuclear missile forces.
Perhaps this is all North Korean disinformation intended to intimidate the United States.
However, given how little we really know about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, given what we do know, and given that the danger of underestimation could risk a nuclear Pearl Harbor, one would think the U.S. Intelligence Community would be less cocksure that North Korea is merely a nuclear “paper tiger.” At minimum, the CIA should be cautioning U.S. policymakers by saying something like, “We cannot rule out that North Korea’s Space Launch Vehicle could be employed as a long-range missile to deliver a nuclear EMP attack against the United States.”
But it is obvious from public commentary by the Obama administration and congressional Republicans that no warning has been given by CIA that North Korea just might be able to deliver a nuclear EMP catastrophe upon the American heartland.
“Group Think” within the U.S. Intelligence Community might not be the only, or even the primary, reason we are witnessing a potentially catastrophic intelligence failure unfolding on the nightly news, during this latest North Korean nuclear crisis. Political pressure, and a bias toward telling the White House what it wants to hear, has caused major intelligence failures before.
Congressional leaders, while listening to intelligence briefings on the current North Korean nuclear threat, should remember the notorious National Intelligence Estimate 95/19. During the Clinton administration, congressional Republicans were arguing for withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, so that the U.S. could build a National Missile Defense to protect itself from rogue states like North Korea. President Clinton’s CIA released a declassified version of NIE 95/19 that claimed no long-range missile threat from North Korea would be forthcoming for decades–the implication being that National Missile Defense was unnecessary.
Congress suspected NIE 95/19 “cooked the books” to support President Clinton’s preference to keep the ABM Treaty and reject National Missile Defense. Consequently, Congress established the Rumsfeld Commission, a blue ribbon panel of scientific and strategic experts, who warned that NIE 95/19 was deeply flawed, and that rogue states like North Korea could soon threaten the U.S. with missiles. Just weeks after delivery of the Rumsfeld Commission Report in 1998, North Korea conducted its first flight-test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Whose ox gets gored if the CIA tells Congress that North Korea can make a long-range nuclear EMP attack against the United States today? Acknowledging North Korea as a fully fledged nuclear weapons state would discredit the Obama administration’s hope that Pyongyang might eventually be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons by a combination of sanctions and negotiations. Failure of such policies to disarm North Korea would also explode their credibility as a realistic means of denying nuclear weapons to Iran, as promised by the White House. If the Intelligence Community has underestimated the nuclear threat from North Korea, how can we have confidence in their estimate that Iran is a year or more away from crossing the “nuclear redline”? Finally, President Obama’s dream of achieving Global Zero, a world without nuclear weapons, already seems dangerously naive, and logically should be replaced with modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent to cope with the twin nightmares of a nuclear armed North Korea and Iran.
Congress should, at minimum, launch a new Congressional Commission to make a more realistic assessment of the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, before faulty intelligence and wishful thinking misleads America into a nuclear Pearl Harbor.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, both Congressional Advisory Boards, and served on the Congressional EMP Commission, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of Apocalypse Unknown: The Struggle To Protect America From An Electromagnetic Pulse Catastrophe and Electric Armageddon, both available from CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com