In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya, when the shipment in fact went first to Pakistan, the Washington Post reported yesterday.
The Bush administration claim was a significant new charge, the first allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons state.
But that is not what US intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction, the Port reported.
North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride -- which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium -- to Pakistan.
It was Pakistan, a key US ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The US government had no evidence, the US officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction, according to the Post.
Pakistan's role as both the buyer and the seller was concealed to cover up the part played by Washington's partner in the hunt for al-Qaeda leaders, according to the officials, who discussed the issue with the Post on the condition of anonymity.
In addition, a North Korea-Pakistan transfer would not have been news to the US allies, which have known of such transfers for years and viewed them as a business matter between sovereign states.
North Korea responded to public reports last month about the briefings by withdrawing from talks with its neighbors and the US.
The new details follow a string of controversies concerning the Bush administration's use of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.
In the run-up to the Iraq invasion in March 2003, the White House offered a public case against Iraq that concealed dissent on nearly every element of intelligence and included interpretations unsupported by the evidence.
The US briefed allies on North Korea in late January and early February. Shortly afterward, administration officials, speaking to the Post on the condition of anonymity, said North Korea had sold uranium hexafluoride to Libya. The officials said the briefing was arranged to share the information with China, South Korea and Japan ahead of a new round of hoped-for negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program.
But in recent days, two other US officials were quoted by the Post as saying that the briefings were hastily arranged after China and South Korea indicated they were considering bolting from six-party talks on North Korea.
The talks have been seen as largely ineffectual, but the Bush administration, which refuses to meet bilaterally with Pyongyang, insists they are critical to curbing North Korea's nuclear program.
The White House declined to offer an official to comment by name about the new details concerning Pakistan, the Post said.
But the briefings gave no indication that US intelligence believes that the material had been bought by Pakistan and transferred there from North Korea in a container owned by the Pakistani government, the Post said.
They also gave no indication that the uranium was then shipped via a Pakistani company to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and on to Libya, the Post said.
Those findings match assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is investigating Libya separately. Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program in December 2003.