Intelligence Veteran Focuses on North Korea

Former CIA agent Joe DeTrani took over this year as the point man for U.S. intelligence efforts on North Korea. He is the new "mission manager" for the country, working for U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte. He is highly regarded. But there are questions about whether he can make much of a difference.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're about to meet two people who have been trying to understand North Korea. One is a writer who worked there. The other coordinates efforts to spy there. They're both trying to get glimpses into the secretive nation that said it conducted a nuclear test this week.

We begin with a man named Joseph DeTrani. Even as the United Nations considers punishment against North Korea, DeTrani's job is to figure out what its secretive government is doing.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on the North Korea mission manager for U.S. intelligence.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Like most career CIA spies, Joe DeTrani has lived most of his life out of public view. But you get a sense of what kind of man we're dealing with from a passage on page 268 of the book, Charlie Wilson's War. It was a bestseller a few years back. So our scene is 1984, and the CIA was trying to convince China to become the major arms merchant for rebels in Afghanistan. As the book tells it, that deal was sealed thanks to the efforts of a brilliant young CIA station chief in Beijing. His colleagues called him Broadway Joe, a tribute to his New York roots and big personality. Broadway Joe persuaded China that selling weapons to Afghan guerrillas would be the best way to stick it to the Soviets. Broadway Joe was Joe DeTrani

Mr. DAVID STRAUB (Former State Department Officer): Joe is an Italian-American in the very best sense: full of life, just a terrific, pleasant person, fun to be with.

KELLY: That's David Straub. He was running the Korea desk at the State Department in 2003 when Joe DeTrani arrived as a top negotiator on the North Korea issue. DeTrani held that job until January of this year, when he announced he was leaving to go work for National Intelligence Chief John Negroponte as the first-ever North Korea mission manager.

DeTrani brings a lot to the table. He served as CIA Beijing station chief not once but twice. He speaks fluent Mandarin. But there's no doubt DeTrani faces some challenges. North Korea is one of only three countries assigned its own mission manager within the U.S. intelligence world. The others are Iran and the Cuba/Venezuela axis. All three jobs were created this year. And while it's still early days, there are questions about whether this reorganization will make much difference.

Several former colleagues of DeTrani's we contacted, all of whom praise him personally, wondered whether he wields enough clout to cut through inter-agency bureaucracy. DeTrani's friend, David Straub, who is now teaching at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, believes that's still a problem for Negroponte's office overall.

Mr. STRAUB: I think the issue is how the organization as a whole is doing, and whether other elements of the intelligence community are going to cooperate as fully as they should.

KELLY: DeTrani declined to speak for this story, but a spokesman for Negroponte's office, Carl Kropf, insists that Joe DeTrani is getting great cooperation and respect from all 16 U.S. spy agencies. Just take this week, with North Korea's apparent nuclear test, Kropf says. DeTrani has been everywhere, briefing the National Security Council, members of Congress, tracking all the intelligence coming in, trying to figure out what it means.

Mr. CARL KROPF (Office of the Director of National Intelligence): So you know, Joe is an integral member of that effort, and he is, in fact, leading the intelligence community's efforts to determine exactly what happened in North Korea.

KELLY: James Lilley is another ex-CIA chief in Beijing. He went on to become U.S. ambassador to Seoul and Beijing and became a good friend of DeTrani's along the way. Lilly says he's not worried about DeTrani holding his own in Washington turf battles. The man's got the credentials, Lilley says. People will listen to him.

Mr. JAMES LILLEY (Former CIA Officer): But I think Joe knows perfectly well, the real guts of this problem is where he really excels, which is in the human collection side. We've got to get at this. And it seems as you work towards a desperate North Korea that seems to be becoming somewhat unstuck, the opportunities are there.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Lilly points to North Korean diplomats turning up in places like Vienna and Berlin wearing Gucci loafers or North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's own son who a few years ago was caught sneaking into Japan on a false passport. He said he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

Lilly argues the North Korean regime is vulnerable. U.S. intelligence ought to be able to penetrate it. That's a mission for which Joe DeTrani, a.k.a. Broadway Joe, would seem to be tailor-made.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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