By Pam Benson and Chris Lawrence
Despite the uproar over a disclosure this week of Pentagon intelligence concluding North Korea may be able to deliver a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile, it's not the first time the Defense Intelligence Agency has suggested Pyongyang had that capability.
Since 2005, two former DIA chiefs have raised the possibility during congressional testimony.
At a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing in April 2005, then-DIA director Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby acknowledged the possibility in response to a question about whether North Korea had the capability to put a nuclear device on a missile.
"The assessment is that they have the capability to do that," Jacoby said.
In February 2011, then-DIA director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess made a similar statement in written comments to the same Senate committee.
"The North may now have several plutonium-based nuclear warheads that it can deliver by ballistic missiles and aircraft as well as by unconventional means," he said.
Pentagon spokeswoman Col. Anne Edgecomb said the recent DIA report and the previous statements are consistent.
"There isn't much difference," Edgecomb said.
But she acknowledged the DIA report did not represent the viewpoint of the entire intelligence community.
The DIA conclusion was unexpectedly disclosed during a House hearing on Thursday amid heightened tensions following weeks of bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang threatening nuclear attacks on the United States, South Korea and their allies.
U.S. officials have characterized the North's saber rattling as largely bluster but think North Korea could test-launch a mobile ballistic missile at any time in what would be seen by the international community as a highly provocative move.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, read an unclassified portion of the otherwise secret report: "DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivering by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low."
U.S officials continued to push back on that assessment on Friday.
"North Korea has not demonstrated the capability to deploy a nuclear-armed missile," White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Friday.
"It is inaccurate to suggest that the DPRK has fully tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in that report," Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to South Korea.
The North Koreans have conducted three underground tests of nuclear devices since 2006, the last just two months ago.
And late last year, they successfully launched for the first time a satellite into orbit using long-range ballistic missile technology.
But experts say there are numerous other steps to master.
"Having that ability to detonate a nuclear warhead in very controlled conditions is quite different from being able to marry a warhead that's small enough to fit on top of missile that can then deliver that to someplace that it needs to go and detonate at the correct altitude to have significant damage result from that detonation," said David Reeths, the Director of IHS Janes Consulting.
U.S. officials do not dispute North Korea has the components to build a nuclear missile.
Reeths said it is "quite possible" the North Koreans could already strike South Korea and "they may even be able to reach Japan."
American officials say North Korea has successfully tested missiles with a range of 800 miles, and miniaturizing a warhead wouldn't be as big of an issue because they use basic Scud missile technology.
A larger warhead can be placed on a missile if it is traveling a shorter distance. But long range ballistic missiles are another story.
To reach the United States, North Korea would have to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) like its Taepo-dong 2, which could put Anchorage and possibly Honolulu within range.
It's estimated that missile could travel 4200 miles, which means it would still be short of hitting mainland cities like Seattle and Los Angeles.
Kerry said Friday in response to a question from CNN's Jill Dougherty, "we don't operate on the presumption that they have that fully tested and available capacity."
A former Obama administration official says "fully tested" doesn't mean launching a missile with a nuclear weapon attached.
The test involves creating essentially a dummy warhead that is matching the weight of an actual warhead, putting all the components in it except for the nuclear material, then being able to control its trajectory without the warhead disintegrating.
The fact the DIA has reached a different conclusion about North Korea's capability than most of the intelligence community is not considered unusual, according to both current and former intelligence officials.
A former senior intelligence official referred to it as "competitive analysis." Analysts are told not to be risk adverse, to push views, said the official. "That's positive."
And a current official said, "different analysts in good faith, using analytical rigor can view intelligence and information differently and come up with different analysis. Ten years ago we were criticized for group think," the official said, a reference to the faulty intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which was the basis for the U.S. invasion of that country.