By Pam Benson
The intelligence community is working on a new assessment of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile program, according to the nation's top intelligence official.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced the broad effort during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday.
He sought to set the record straight following controversy over a Pentagon intelligence assessment of Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities that surfaced unexpectedly last week amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
In that case, an unclassified part of an otherwise secret analysis concluded with moderate confidence that North Korea could now deliver a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile.
Clapper and the Defense Department said soon after the disclosure of the Defense Intelligence Agency report at a congressional hearing that the finding was not shared by other members of the intelligence community.
North Korea, he said, has not "fully developed, tested or demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile," Clapper said on Thursday.
He added that it requires sophisticated analysis to make such a determination.
"It is indeed rocket science," he said.
The U.S. intelligence community is comprised of 16 agencies and departments across the government.
The disclosure last week followed weeks of bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang threatening nuclear attacks on the United States, South Korea and their allies.
Clapper also explained to senators that there is a lack of uniform agreement on many things associated with North Korea.
In this case, he said, the difference is about the confidence level in its ability to successfully launch a nuclear weapon in a missile.
"Neither we nor the North Koreans know whether that will actually work," Clapper said. "DIA has a higher confidence level than the rest of the community."
Clapper said the disagreement isn't about "infighting" within the intelligence community but represents a healthy debate about what is known to be a fact versus how "to impute from those facts."
He pointed to the hard lessons learned from the erroneous national intelligence assessment 10 years ago which indicated Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, one of the key reasons the United States went to war with Saddam Hussein.
The intelligence community was accused of group-think and failing to acknowledge alternative viewpoints.
The Armed Services Committee hearing on world threats also touched on a number of other hot button issues including the September terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the Syrian civil war and the effects of forced budget cuts on the intelligence community.
There was a testy exchange between Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, and the DNI about lessons learned from Benghazi.
Questions were raised about the level of security at the compound, intelligence reporting on threats by militia groups, and the Obama administration’s slow-to-develop public explanation of what occurred.
For months, Republicans have hammered away at public talking points written by the intelligence community at the request of a member of Congress in the immediate aftermath of the armed assault.
Those talking points said the attack was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti Islamic video produced in the United States. Republicans maintain the administration knew all along it was an organized terror attack and was deliberately misleading the public.
Ayotte asked Clapper about lessons learned.
"Well, one, don't do unclassified talking points for members of Congress," he said.
He then discussed the need for enhanced security and more tactical intelligence for U.S. facilities overseas.
Ayotte shot back, "The lesson can't be not to do talking points for members of Congress. How about getting the talking points right?"
Clapper wouldn't let her comment go unchallenged.
"They were right," Clapper said.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin returned to the subject in an apparent attempt to let Clapper explain why the talking points were correct.
Levin: "When they were written, did you ... believe they were accurate?
Clapper: "Well, we believed them to be, and as tempered by our concerns for intelligence and investigatory equities."
Levin: "Given all that temperance at the time they were produced, you believed they were accurate?"
Clapper: "That was my response to Senator Ayotte, yes.”
Clapper also said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was criticized unfairly for sticking to those talking points when she appeared on talk shows the weekend after the attacks.
"I didn't think that was appropriate and she was going on what we had given her, and that was our collective best judgment at the time as to what should have been said," Clapper said.
The Obama administration has said the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a red line that would lead to a response from the United States.
There have been unconfirmed reports of Syrian government forces using chemical weapons against rebels. But when asked if the Syrian's had crossed the red line, Clapper refused to answer. He said it was a question for policymakers and one the intelligence community should and would not answer.
Clapper was also reluctant to respond to a question about whether he supported arming the Syrian opposition.
But when pressed by Sen. John McCain, R- Arizona, Clapper pointed to the quantity of arms already in Syria.
"I am not convinced now that arming - or supplying yet additional weaponry to the opposition would have, will have a desired benefit based on cost-benefit."
He did say a “no-fly” zone would be a possibility as the opposition gains ground in Syria, but he added a “no-fly” zone would be a difficult undertaking.
Clapper had blunt comments on the impact of the government-wide spending cuts that took effect in March on the intelligence community's ability to keep the nation safe.
"If we are not careful, we risk another damaging downward spiral and unlike more observable sequestration impacts like shorter hours at the parks or longer security lines at airports, the degradation to intelligence will be insidious," Clapper said.
"It will be gradual and almost invisible until of course we have an intelligence failure," added.
McCain called the forced cuts a clear threat to national security and criticized both the White House and Congress for not doing anything to repeal them.