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North Korean Breakthrough? Or U.S. Intelligence Snafu? (Or Both?)

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DoD photo / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Army General Martin Dempsey declined to answer on Thursday when asked if he felt DIA was right when the Pentagon intelligence agency suggested North Korea could put a nuclear warhead atop one of its missiles

The news flashed around the world late Thursday afternoon, East Coast time, after Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado, read a mistakenly declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) excerpt aloud at a congressional hearing:

DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low.

That was the shot.

The chaser, which got much less attention, came later on Thursday from Pentagon spokesman George Little:

It would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage.

“The statement read by the member,” James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, added, “is not an intelligence-community assessment.”

So what’s the average American supposed to make of this?

First, those North Koreans, incapable of feeding their own 24 million people, are incredibly good nuclear and missile engineers. The DIA was saying similar things about Iraq slightly more than a decade ago. That turned out to be flat-out wrong — just like how U.S. intelligence failed to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks. President Reagan’s “trust but verify” may not be possible here, but big grains of salt are.

(MORE: North Korea’s Kim Il Sung Birthday Anniversaries Lead to Shows of Military Force)

The U.S. government is taking the North Korean threat seriously. Kim Jong Un no doubt watched Lamborn’s clip, over and over again, chortling at the impact his efforts, viewed through the always distorting prism of U.S. intelligence, are having on the U.S. Over the past month, the Pentagon has boosted missile defense throughout the western Pacific and announced plans to boost a West Coast missile shield designed to protect the U.S. mainland from North Korea attack.

The DIA assessment apparently was not shared widely across the government, given the reaction of Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who heard Lamborn read the intel summary.

‘General,’ Lamborn asked, ‘would you agree with that assessment by DIA?’

Dempsey punted. ‘You know, Congressman, with the number of caveats you put on the front end of this, I’m not going to — I can’t touch that one, because I’m not sure now — hasn’t been released; some of it’s classified; some of it’s unclassified,’ he said. ‘Let me take that one for the record’ and answer it later.

‘Let me repeat. Maybe I caught you a little bit off guard here, because you’ve had so many questions today,’ Lamborn said near the end of a lengthy hearing on the Pentagon’s 2014 budget. ‘But they concluded — and this is public; this is unclassified, so I can make it public — ‘DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low.”

Dempsey: ‘And your question is, Do I agree with the DIA’s assessment?’

‘Yes.’

Dempsey: ‘Well, I haven’t seen it, and you said it’s not publicly released, so I choose not to comment on it.’

Ouch. It was really a pretty simple question: Do you think the DIA is right?

(MORE: In the Shadow of North Korean Threats, South Korea Shrugs)

Regardless of whether or not the statement was “publicly released” or, even less significantly, “seen” by the general, he owed his best assessment of the DIA’s contention then and there. U.S. and nuclear-missile experts by and large believe North Korea currently lacks a missile-warhead combination that could threaten the U.S.

Second: How can a passage like that quoted by Lamborn be mistakenly declassified, as Pentagon officials said was the case after he read it? This isn’t water-cooler chatter; this is important national-security data contained in a March DIA report titled Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013). If it turns out to be true that this was declassified in error, heads should roll. They won’t, but they should.

Third: North Korea has been pushing to put nuclear warheads atop its missiles for years. Intelligence is a game of grays, not black and white, and they’re somewhere between light gray and dark gray. “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But, we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” That was Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, referring to Saddam a decade ago.

Fourth: if North Korea ever fires such a missile at the U.S. or its allies, it will cease, shortly thereafter, to exist.

Finally: North Korea cares more about its own survival than it cares about nuclear weapons. Therefore, once it gets them, it will never use them.

But conceding that point would take all the fun out of the DIA’s slipup, so let’s just ignore it.

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