North Korea launched Unha-3 rocket Dec. 12 allegedly carrying the satellite Kwangmyongsong-3. The photo was taken by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. (KCNA via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency finding that North Korea possesses nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles was thrust into public by a senior U.S. House staff member who was merely doing his job, congressional sources say.
In a new twist, a House source tells Defense News that a DIA congressional liaison told a senior House Armed Services Committee aide that while the finding was unclassified, the Obama administration wanted to keep it under wraps.
House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., sent ripples around the world Thursday when he read this passage from a sensitive DIA intelligence report: “DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was visibly unsettled and shocked after Lamborn shared the finding during a public hearing about the Pentagon’s 2014 budget request. Dempsey told Lamborn, “I haven’t seen it,” and added that since the report had not been publicly released, he did not feel comfortable discussing it in an open session.
Dempsey’s admission that Lamborn’s reading was the first he had heard of the DIA finding, which Lamborn and congressional sources say was unclassified, raised several questions.
How did House members receive such a potentially game-changing finding that the Joint Chiefs chairman had not received from a leading U.S. intelligence agency as the Korean Peninsula — and perhaps the entire region — teeters on the brink of war? Did someone inside the Pentagon or DIA purposely leak the finding? If it was leaked, what are the motivations of any leaker(s)?
As described by multiple congressional sources, the circumstances under which the DIA finding, which senior U.S. officials say does not reflect the beliefs of the entire intel community, wound up in Lamborn’s hands were not nearly as dramatic as such questions imply.
“Finished intelligence reports are a part of our routine oversight,” a senior House Armed Services Committee aide said Friday.
Another House aide offered more detail in a separate conversation with Defense News.
Many professional staff members who work for committees that perform oversight of national security agencies have access to what the aide described as “a secure network” where intelligence reports are posted.
A senior professional staff member on the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee “was looking through those recently and came across that sentence in the conclusion of a report,” the House aide said.
“He then immediately emailed the DIA legislative affairs contact and asked if that sentence was classified or unclassified,” said the House aide, who has reviewed the email exchange. “The legislative affairs contact wrote back, in all capital letters, that it was unclassified.”
Defense officials have since said the sentence was mistakenly unclassified.
Congressional sources say it is common for some parts of a single intelligence report to be marked classified and other parts marked unclassified.
A senior Pentagon official referred a reporter to DIA’s public affairs office. That office has yet to respond to a reporter’s telephone call seeking more information.
During the email exchange with the senior House Armed Services subcommittee professional staffer, the DIA legislative liaison told him, in the House aide’s words: “The administration didn’t want this getting out.”
A White House National Security Council spokeswoman declined to comment. DIA’s public affairs office had yet to respond to a second telephone message, this one specifically about that charge.
On Thursday evening, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a statement declaring the DIA finding is not shared by the other U.S. intelligence agencies.
“North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear-armed missile,” Clapper said.
Also on Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said in a statement, “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.”
Still, the DIA finding set off alarm bells on Capitol Hill and in the region. Some lawmakers are pressing the White House to be more aggressive in its efforts to defuse North Korea’s increasingly bellicose actions and rhetoric.