WASHINGTON — An impromptu release of a Pentagon intelligence assessment suggesting North Korea could fit a nuclear warhead atop a ballistic missile — only to see the nation's top intelligence official say other U.S. agencies did not necessarily agree — has exposed a divide in America's intelligence apparatus on the threat from Pyongyang.
The Defense Intelligence Agency, the largest of the 16 U.S. intelligence services in terms of personnel, came under fire Friday, a day after Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., unexpectedly disclosed in a House hearing that the DIA had "moderate confidence" that Pyongyang "currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery" by missiles.
If true, North Korea would pose a far greater threat than the White House previously has acknowledged because the nation could, in theory, launch a nuclear weapon at the United States, Japan or South Korea.
But in an unusual airing of what are usually classified disagreements, officials quickly made clear that the DIA appraisal was disputed by other intelligence agencies.
"What's going on here is the typical cultural divide" among military and civilian intelligence agencies, said Mark Lowenthal, a former top intelligence analyst at the CIA and the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
"The DIA," he said, "tends to focus a lot more on military things, and they tend to get a little more excited about them."
DIA estimates of Soviet missile strength during the Cold War, for instance, were often higher than other estimates, Lowenthal said.
The civilian CIA "tends to be more lawyerly" and demands more evidence before it reaches an affirmative judgment, said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who focused on North Korea.
To be sure, both the CIA and DIA were wrong about Saddam Hussein's supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Their judgments provided a key rationale for the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but no illicit weapons were found.
Except for the two sentences Lamborn read aloud, the DIA report on North Korea, which was prepared a month ago, remains classified. It's unclear whether it cites evidence for the assessment.
What is certain is that the Obama administration was not pleased. Late Thursday night, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, took the unusual step of issuing a public statement that slapped down the DIA.
Clapper said the DIA claim was "not an intelligence community assessment. Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile."