Ever since North Korea conducted its second nuclear test and fired off volleys of missiles and red-hot rhetoric, there has been some degree of hyperventilation in international media coverage of the latest crisis in Northeast Asia. One example are reports that the United States and South Korea put their troops on high-alert after what appeared to be Pyongyang’s renunciation of the 1953 truce accord.
But former senior U.S. intelligence officer John McCreary, who produces NightWatch, a sterling daily analysis of international events that he compiles from open sources, notes that there are “two systems of graduated alerts” for U.S. and South Korean forces. One is for combat readiness – or Def Con – and the other is for intelligence collection, or Watch Con. And, he explains, it’s U.S. and South Korean intelligence collection assets that have been placed on higher alert, not their combat forces.
In his latest NightWatch, McCreary points out that the South Korean Defense Ministry announced on Thursday the implementation of “Watch Con II” and that “surveillance over the North will be stepped up, with more aircraft and personnel mobilized.”
“Watch Con II is the condition in which intelligence collection assets are surged,” McCreary writes. “In addition, the analytical corps devoted to an intelligence problem is supposed to be surged and operating 24×7. More sensors are devoted to a problem and more people stand watch.”
The ideal might very well have been to move to Watch Con II in the days leading up to the test, a condition that would indicate that the IC knew what the DPRK was planning–and that the administration concurred. That said, while there is evidence that the IC were on top of this one, there is not much to indicate either way whether the administration accepted their assessments and acted–or chose not to act–based on the information provided. An incomplete list of scenarios:
- The administration knew what was coming and allowed it to happen. The global community being surprised builds up the urgency of the threat.
- The administration knew what was coming and quietly took steps to manage the fallout (not a pun). Global community is surprised and the administration can retroactively claim prudence and mitigation.
- The administration didn’t act on the products of the IC but delegated some authority to the IC and the military as a “just in case” measure. Fairly implausible, but possibly desirable.
- The administration didn’t act on the products of the IC and were surprised. This would be the “oh shit” scenario.
#2 would be consistent with the strategy and discipline of the administration, but #4 would be most consistent with human nature.