An excerpt from a Pentagon report that set off worries about a North Korean nuclear missile was part of a very preliminary assessment not intended to be made public and never reached senior levels of the U.S. government, U.S. sources said on Friday.
The evaluation from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, concluded that North Korea likely has a nuclear bomb that can be launched on a missile. U.S. defense and intelligence officials later cast serious doubt on whether North Korea can, in fact, fire a nuclear missile.
Disclosure of the contents of the DIA report on Thursday added to the tensions on the Korean peninsula, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has threatened war in recent weeks.
In Seoul, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poured cold water on the report and said it is "inaccurate to suggest that the DPRK (North Korea) has fully tested, developed capabilities" as set down in the document.
In addition, a source close to the administration's policymaking on North Korea, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the DIA report was considered "very preliminary" inside the Pentagon and did not prompt any changes in U.S. military contingency planning.
It was not a factor in the U.S. decision to stage a flyover of B-2 stealth jets over South Korea last month as part of joint exercises or the deployment of missile interceptors to Guam and Alaska, the source added.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterized the DIA paper as "relatively low level" and added that it "never got to senior levels of the U.S. government." The official added that the paper was classified "Secret," which is a mid-level classification, far below the secrecy levels applied to the most sensitive U.S. intelligence reports.
Gary Samore, who until earlier this year was the top nuclear proliferation expert on President Barack Obama's national security staff, said on Friday it looked like there "is not enough evidence to reach a conclusion either way" as to whether North Korea is capable of building and deploying a nuclear warhead on a missile.
A little-known U.S. lawmaker, Representative Doug Lamborn, set off alarm bells on Thursday when he read a small section of the DIA report on North Korea at a hearing in the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
The passage said the DIA had "moderate confidence" that North Korea has nuclear weapons that are capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. The report was entitled "Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013)."
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same congressional hearing on Thursday he had not read the assessment. "Well, I haven't seen it," Dempsey said. "And you said it's not publicly released, so I choose not to comment on it," he told Lamborn.
The passage on possible nuclear missiles became public because it was erroneously marked as unclassified, a U.S. official said.
Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado, acknowledged on CNN he had read only a small portion of the seven-page report.
James Clapper, the senior U.S. intelligence official, said North Korea has not yet shown it can build a nuclear missile.
"I would add that the statement read by the Member is not an Intelligence Community assessment. Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile," Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement late on Thursday.
The DIA gathers information about the capacity and strategic intentions of foreign militaries. It was criticized after the start of the Iraq war in 2003 for being too bullish in predicting that Baghdad might have weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea has deployed as many as five medium-range missiles on its east coast, according to assessments by Washington and Seoul, possibly in readiness for a test launch that would demonstrate its ability to hit U.S. bases on Guam.
Those missiles are not believed to be nuclear-armed.
The DIA report said any North Korean nuclear missile would probably be unreliable.
Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Arms Control Association, said that while he did not have access to the classified material apparently cited in Congress, what was said publicly about DIA's assessment sounded quite tentative.
"It really says to me that this is a speculative statement," Thielmann said. "Moderate (confidence) is higher than low confidence but it doesn't say they know very much."