April 18 (Bloomberg) -- The Defense Intelligence Agency’s declaration that North Korea may be able to arm its long-range missiles with nuclear warheads was supposed to remain secret, the top U.S. intelligence official said today.
“The statement in question was one sentence in a seven-page classified report and was mistakenly miscategorized as unclassified,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The sentence said the DIA “assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles however the reliability will be low.”
After the excerpt was disclosed at an April 11 U.S. House of Representatives hearing, Clapper and Pentagon spokesman George Little disputed it, with the intelligence director saying North Korea hasn’t “demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear-armed missile.” President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry later challenged the DIA assessment, too.
Today, Clapper said the unusual public debate reflected normal disagreements among intelligence agencies, especially on difficult target countries such as North Korea, not infighting in the 16-agency intelligence community.
U.S. intelligence agencies “lack uniform agreement on assessing many things in North Korea,” Clapper said. “Its actual nuclear capabilities are no exception.”
The difference between the DIA and other intelligence agencies “has to do with the confidence level in the actual ability of the North Koreans to make a weapon that will work in a missile,” he said.
“Neither we nor the North Koreans know” whether “such a capability, if they have it, will actually work,” Clapper said.
“And so DIA has a higher confidence level than the rest of the community on that capability,” he said. “That’s the difference.”
Clapper said varying assessments by different intelligence agencies reflect a diversity of views that’s encouraged.
“This revelation is illustrative of the standard dilemma we in the intelligence community face in portraying what we know to be fact in contrast to what we attempt to impute from those facts,” Clapper said.
The DIA frequently takes a more extreme view of the capability of potential enemy military forces than the State Department and other agencies do, largely because it’s charged with ensuring that U.S. forces are prepared for any threat.
The DIA assessment of North Korea’s nuclear missile capabilities was the product of a collaborative, competitive process that’s evolved since 2002 after the intelligence community mischaracterized the existence and extent of Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction, Clapper said.
“We learned lessons from that experience,” he said.
In that case, though, CIA, State Department and other officials expressed numerous doubts and dissents about the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weaponry, but political appointees in the George W. Bush administration ignored them in their effort to make a case for invading Iraq.
Clapper said the intelligence community now “is in process of generating an overall assessment” of North Korea’s nuclear missile capabilities.
“If we all agree, great. If we don’t, that’s healthy, too,” Clapper said. “We will clearly portray the views of the various members to our consumers,” including the president, he said.
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