CIA Director Mike Pompeo revealed Tuesday that North Korea is still “months” away from being able to fire nuclear weapons reliably at the United States, in remarks to the American Enterprise Institute. Earlier this week, the told CBS News North Korea is a “handful of months” away, and last fall he also used the phrase “months away,” leaving Tuesday’s audience, and presumably Pyongyang in the dark as to how much the CIA knows – though he said nothing about the North Korean nuclear program’s pace had caught his agency by surprise, contrary to press reports. We asked Cipher Brief experts Ambassador Joseph DeTrani and Gordon Chang to comment on some of Director Pompeo’s remarks.
- On North Korea: “They have moved at a very rapid clip, make no mistake about it. Their testing capacity has improved and the frequency with which they have tests that are materially successful has also improved, putting them ever closer to a place where Americans can be held at risk. I think that’s a true statement.
- “It is also analytically true that Kim Jong Un will not rest with a single successful test. The logical next step would be to develop an arsenal of weapons. That is, not one, not a show-piece, not something to drive on a parade route on Feb. 8, but rather the capacity to deliver … multiple firings of these missiles simultaneously. And that increases the risk to Americans, and that’s the very mission set that President Trump has directed the government to figure out a way to make sure never occurs.”
- Gordon Chang’s reaction: “Well, you do get a sense that people in the Trump Administration are sort of talking themselves into a didder. You’ve got people who are saying look, the North Koreans will get this capability within x number of months, or whatever time frame. And what they’re doing is they’re making the assumption that we cannot deter North Korea, so you get a sense of this impending doom. And it’s not just Pompeo, it’s others, who talk about a shortened time frame for de-nuclearizing North Korea. That’s the general overall sense that I got from what Pompeo’s been saying, because he talks about a handful of months before the North gets the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuke on top of a missile.”
- On whether Kim Jong Un believes the U.S. is willing to use force: “We’re concerned that he may not be getting really good, accurate information. It is not a healthy thing to be a senior leader and to be delivering bad news to Kim Jung Un…We’re taking the real-world actions that we think will make unmistakable to Kim Jong Un that we are intent on denuclearization. We’re counting on the fact that he’ll see it. We’re confident that he will, and then we will continue to have discussions about how to achieve that denuclearization.”
- On preparing the CIA to take more risks: “If we’re going to do it right, we’re going to have failed missions. It is inevitable, almost by definition. If you move out on the risk profile, you will increase the number of times you will have a failure. We’re going to do that. And we’re going to make sure that people aren’t punished for that, but they are rather recognized for having been professional, for having operated against the target set, and having done something incredibly audacious. And if it turns out the coin just ends up tails instead of heads, so be it. We’re going to go to the next day and go crush our adversary one more time.”
- Amb. DeTrani’s reaction: “In this business, there is no ‘100 percent.’ So, I think his statement is very fair, that people should be not risk adverse. They need to – especially in the business of analysis, when you’re looking at a stream of data and you need to make judgments as to what that data represents… you have to base it on something, so you have to take a risk by definition in the business of analysis when you’re doing this work. So I not only agree with what he said, I applaud what he said. And hopefully that is the case – that people are being encouraged – certainly analysts are being encouraged to take risks with their estimates – based on as much information as possible.
- On counterintelligence and the recent reported loss of Chinese assets: “We should make sure that the secrets we steal aren’t re-stolen. We have an obligation to the American people to do that. I’ve made a number of changes, one of which is to make sure we’re providing the information so that the Department of Justice can do its good work at bringing these traitors to heel in U.S. courts. The second … is making sure that our organization has the resources it needs to deliver on its counterintelligence mission, which includes assuring that we’re doing offensive counterintelligence that is working against our adversaries’ services in a way that prevents them from getting inside of our service.
- “One of the first things I did—the woman who runs our counterintelligence mission center reports directly to me now. That was intentional. That was intentional, sending a signal to two places. One, to our adversaries, that the CIA is going to be serious about protecting our stuff, and second, to my workforce, to know that the director was personally attentive to a mission that can fall too far down in the priority scheme. To me, there are few things more important than protecting our officers, our assets and our information.”