Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell on Thursday warned against the pressing threat of North Korea, suggesting that the country may have the capability to put a nuclear weapon on the continental U.S.
“It’s a current threat, not a future threat,” Morell told attendees of The Cipher Brief’s Annual Threat Conference in Sea Island, Georgia.
North Korea conducted another rocket engine test this week, according to reports on Thursday. North Korea, Morell said, poses three significant threats: the use of nuclear weapons, the sale of nuclear weapons, and, in a situation where the North Korean government collapses, loose nukes.
“What I fear the most is the collapse scenario in the North with civil war and nobody quite knowing where the nuclear weapons are and how we account for them,” Morell said.
While news reports often suggest that North Korea will not have the ability to strike the U.S. homeland with a nuclear-armed missile for four or five years, Morell said the U.S. should assume that North Korea can today put a nuclear weapon on the continental U.S., and Alaska and Hawaii.
Morell, who was President George W. Bush’s briefer on September 11, 2001, said the “critical lesson of the Iraq WMD story is analysts not only have to make a judgment, but talk about their confidence level in that judgment.” So, while Morrell noted he has “low confidence” in the judgment that North Korea can deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States, he said the U.S. must demonstrate to every other country with nuclear ambitions what the costs of such an action would be.
The former CIA acting director said he does not see a military or diplomatic solution to Kim Jong-un’s regime. For one, the U.S. does not “know where the weapons are.” This constrains U.S. options; Washington would not want to conduct a military strike that potentially left even one nuclear weapon underground, for instance.
As for a diplomatic solution, Morell said that’s not a potential option for the U.S. either, given that the weapons program is key to Kim’s survival, given that he needs an enemy to “justify to his people the scarifies he asks them to make.”
It is a deeply complicated problem, Morell said, and the idea that the U.S. just needs “to put a bit of pressure” on North Korea does not add up historically – past presidents could not find a solution either.
Instead, the U.S. must focus on deterrence, and getting Kim to see that a severe cost would be imposed on him if he pursues his aims. This path would demand two critical approaches: one, denying North Korea’s objective of “being able to hit the homeland and our allies” with missile defenses in South Korea, Japan, Alaska and Hawaii. The other, according to Morell, is about showing North Korea the costs of the use, or sale of, nuclear weapons.
“We need to get [North Korea] to believe exactly what the Soviet Union believed — if they launched a strike it would be the end of the Soviet Union.” he told conference attendees.
Morell, who endorsed Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, also weighed in on the early days of President Donald Trump’s time in office.
“[Former Intelligence Community officials] were all talking and speaking publicly and questioning and wondering whether this man would take an intel briefing,” Morell said. “Guess what, he is. Almost every day, with Mike Pompeo in the room, Dan Coats in the room, and a briefer that many of us know.”
Morell said a briefer has told him the president “pays attention and asks questions,” although the daily briefings are “chaotic.” But Trump is “absorbing intelligence,” Morell said, and that “matters, I think, a great, great deal.”
On the whole, Morell said he is not so optimistic that Trump’s foreign policy “is headed in the right direction.”
“There’s an isolationism in the president that I think makes President Barack Obama look like an internationalist,” Morell said.
On North Korea, the Trump administration started with “bluster and tough rhetoric,” but that just “reinforces” Kim’s “view he needs [nuclear weapons],” Morell said.
“It’s exactly counterproductive.”
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.