In the debate over how the United States should counter the threat presented by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, several government agencies have overtaken the American narrative. The State Department tries to negotiate with North Korea. The Defense Department examines military alternatives. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA) surveil developments on the Korean Peninsula. Many, however, have ignored the unique expertise that the Department of Energy (DOE) lends to the intelligence community.
The Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (OICI), DOE’s in-house intelligence agency, specializes in monitoring nuclear proliferation. Whereas the CIA specializes in human intelligence, the DIA in military intelligence, and the NSA in signals intelligence, OICI can draw on the knowledge of nuclear physicists and other scientists working at the DOE National Laboratories and Technology Centers, such as the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Labs, in its intelligence efforts.
OICI “has a different mission from the CIA,” Philip E. Coyle, a former official at DOE, the Defense Department, and the White House now at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, told The Diplomat in an email. “It’s not that the CIA couldn’t do a different mission if the CIA were so tasked, but it is not the CIA’s job to try to replicate what another agency is already doing.”
On its website, DOE is attempting to recruit specialists in computer security, counterintelligence, human resources management, and intelligence analysis, providing insight into the range of OICI’s work. In addition to its own employees, OICI depends on scientific and technical intelligence offered by the likes of Dr. Siegfried S. Heckler, a former director of Los Alamos who has traveled to North Korea seven times, even inspecting its nuclear reactors . Heckler declined to comment on his trips to North Korea and his work with OICI, but has previously advocated for negotiations with Kim Jong-un.
As the preeminent intelligence agency on nuclear proliferation around the world, OICI has several methods of collecting information on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. “It might be by gathering information from an expert, like Dr. Sig Hecker, who recently had visited in North Korea, or by working with experts at one of the DOE nuclear weapons labs, or by analyzing information collected by the U.S. Air Force, or by some other U.S. intelligence agency,” explained Coyle. He noted that OICI often relies on samples of radiation acquired by the U.S. Air Force during flights near North Korea.
The expertise available to OICI often exceeds what other intelligence agencies can offer policymakers. Sharon Squassoni, a former official at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), the State Department, and the Congressional Research Service, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found herself deferring to DOE intelligence.
“I can tell you from my past experience as a nuclear nonproliferation expert in ACDA and State that I tended only to rely on national lab and DOE experts because they were the ones (versus CIA or DIA) who really knew things about nuclear weapons — how they’re made, what components go into them, etc.,” she told The Diplomat. “The CIA was mostly good on personalities, but because of the lack of access to North Korean officials, it’s doubtful they have very good intelligence on the key players.”
The Iraq War presents the most alarming example of the CIA’s failure to assess the extent of proliferation as well as its DOE counterpart does. Whereas several intelligence agencies, the CIA foremost among them, judged that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear weapons, OICI countered that the CIA had a weaker case than it realized. The United States invaded Iraq anyway, undertaking a war that many Americans consider a mistake and that continues, in a sense, to this day.
OICI’s portfolio extends to several countries. “DOE has always tracked the nuclear activities — and potentially nuclear weapons-related activities — in Iran and North Korea, not just Russia or China,” noted Coyle. “The DOE mission is to understand the significance of such activities, and that has not changed.” If U.S. President Donald Trump executes his promise to cancel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the treaty limiting Iran’s access to nuclear energy, OICI’s work could become that much more important. Otherwise, the United States could be facing the potential for nuclear warfare.
Coyle emphasized that the intelligence community has overcome much of the factionalism that contributed to the Iraq War: ”The current situation with the DPRK [North Korea] is very serious, and I am sure all U.S. government agencies recognize that and understand the imperatives for close coordination,” he said. ”If there were something specific DOE needed, they might ask the CIA to help them. An example might be information about a nuclear facility in North Korea, a reactor, or other facility that DOE knew existed but needed a particular piece of information about, information DOE itself had no means to obtain.”
As North Korea has come closer to developing nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States, DOE’s prominence in the debate on how to respond has grown.* Dr. Ernest Moniz, Obama’s second secretary of energy, argued for further diplomacy with North Korea and expressed concerns that Japan might develop its own nuclear weapons in self-defense.
The opinion of Rick Perry, Trump’s pick for secretary of energy, remains less clear. Before Trump nominated him, Perry claimed that he would abolish DOE, only to recant earlier this year. He even seemed surprised that DOE managed the United States’ own arsenal of nuclear weapons. Compared to predecessors Chu and Moniz, both physicists, Perry has no scientific background. Prior to his appointment, many questioned Perry’s qualifications to lead DOE.
Even if Perry struggles with nuclear physics, his employees at OICI, Livermore, and Los Alamos have more than enough expertise to compensate for him. Americans can only wonder, though, whether they have enough intelligence to counter the threat presented by North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. OICI, though under the radar of public perception, might be the best placed to fill in the gaps.
*A previous version of this article included a mistaken reference to Stephen Chu’s remarks on North Korea policy.
Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the Muslim world. His writing has appeared in AskMen, The Daily Beast, The Daily Dot, Vox, and Wired UK.