The Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded with "moderate confidence" that North Korea might have a nuclear weapon that's small enough to be placed on a ballistic missile. But the DIA also says that if that is the case, the reliability of the missile would be low.
The alarming assessment came as North Korea has been issuing threats that range from testing a new missile to nuclear war against the U.S. and South Korea.
It was made public near the end of a House Armed Services Committee in which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey were testifying about the proposed Pentagon budget.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., asked Dempsey if he agreed with a recent classified DIA report that contained an unclassified section that said, "DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low." Dempsey eventually admitted he had not seen this report so he couldn't answer the congressman's question.
"Moderate confidence" is an intelligence term that signals plausibility. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capabilities defined it as "generally [meaning] credibly sourced and plausible information, but not of sufficient quality or corroboration to warrant a higher level of confidence."
Tonight Director of National Intelligence James Clapper downplayed the DIA assessment, saying that "North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile." He also emphasized that the assessment was not the intelligence community's assessment.
"I concur with the earlier Department of Defense statement that 'it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully developed and tested the kinds of nuclear weapons referenced in the passage.'"
The earlier statement that Clapper referenced was by Pentagon press secretary George Little, who also said, "The United States continues to closely monitor the North Korean nuclear program and calls upon North Korea to honor its international obligations."
The DIA is one of 17 intelligence agencies in the federal government that independently do their own assessments on specific topics of interest. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is tasked with developing a consensus intelligence assessment that helps policy makers make national security decisions. That can prove difficult when different agencies arrive at different conclusions on the same topic.
The assessment may have never been intended to be made public, said a U.S. official, adding that it may have been erroneously labeled as unclassified in what remains a mostly classified report. According to intelligence officials, such a key assessment is almost always listed as classified.
A spokesperson for Lamborn's office says the congressman had recently visited his committee's reading room to read the unclassified portion of the report called "Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013)."
While Clapper may have been downplaying the DIA assessment, at an earlier Capitol Hill hearing today, he testified that "North Korea has already demonstrated capabilities that threaten the United States and the security environment in East Asia." He listed North Korea's nuclear test in February, their plan to restart the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and last year's display of the KN-08 missile which he said "appears to be a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile."
"We believe Pyongyang has already taken initial steps towards fielding this system, although it remains untested," he said. Last December's launch of a Taepodong 2 missile that placed a satellite in orbit demonstrated its long-range missile technology.
"These developments have been accompanied with extremely belligerent, aggressive public rhetoric towards the United States and South Korea. We continue to carefully monitor developments in anticipation of North Korea's next provocative step."
The world's attention has been drawn to what U.S. officials believe could be the imminent launch of a mid-range mobile ballistic missile called the Musudan. A U.S. official says possibly as many as two missiles have been located in the town of Wonsan along North Korea's eastern coast.
The official says a Musudan missile or missiles have been spotted being moved out of the shed on their launchers and then being set up upright into the firing position. The missile has then been spotted by American satellites being lowered into the horizontal position and moved back into the shed. This has happened more than once.
It is part of the reason why the U.S. can't fully ascertain that there are two missiles in the shed is that only one comes out at a time. The notion that there are two is because more gear than is necessary for one missile was spotted during the transport and possibly at the current location.
"They're teasing us," said a U.S. official. This same official offered the explanation that the repeated up and down of the loader into the firing position could be training on the part of the North Koreans to prepare for a launch on short notice.