This week, the rather arcane issue of what’s classified versus unclassified in an intelligence assessment hit the headlines big-time, when a Congressman revealed in open session that the Defense Intelligence Agency believes that North Korea – you know, the people who’ve been acting all crazy of late – can successfully lob a nuke on a missile, which is a whole lot more complicated (and dangerous) than having a nuke just sitting in a cave somewhere.
Three hours into a session of the House Armed Services Committee, member Rep. Doug Sanborn (R-CO) revealed that DIA had assessed with “moderate confidence” that North Korea has the capability to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be launched with a ballistic missile. File under “important if true.”
Not surprisingly, a partisan firestorm has broken out, amid accusations that the Obama administration has tried to hush-up this DIA assessment, which paints a darker picture of North Korean capabilities than the rest of the Intelligence Community (IC) generally agrees with. The statement in question was said to be an unclassified sentence in an otherwise classified DIA assessment; this happens all the time, since with what the IC terms portion-marking, there can be fully unclassified paragraphs even in highly classified studies.
Except this wasn’t. To make matters worse, it seems that DIA, when asked by a HASC staffer if they could run with this hot-button line, since it was juicy and seemed to be unclassified, explicitly and emphatically replied that it was indeed UNCLAS. But it actually was classified. How a staffer managed to confuse such things in a high-profile assessment from one’s own agency, when asked directly about it by a Hill staffer, beggars belief.
DIA public affairs perhaps sensibly has no further comment on this matter, as it’s wearing egg all over, made worse by the fact that within hours of Rep. Sanborn’s utterance, Jim Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, made clear that the DNI and the rest of the IC did not back DIA’s assessment.
In fact, there is a long history of this sort of thing with DIA, which ever since its establishment in 1961 has been an also-ran among America’s spy agencies. On the North Korean nuclear issue – it need not be explained in detail why it’s important to get this right – DIA has long provided the Defense Department with wildly flawed assessments that greatly overstated Pyongyang’s WMD capabilities. This may be another such event.
DIA is an odd agency, since it provides intelligence support to the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, for whom most of its finished assessments are intended. It owns little else directly, IC-wise, save the small and esoteric MASINT mission, though the recent stand-up of the Defense Clandestine Service, an in-house HUMINT capability, gives shudders to most of the IC, who know DIA’s longstanding reputation for less than competence. Given that DIA’s last famous HUMINT case was CURVEBALL, the notorious Iraqi WMD fabricator, caution ought to be in order.
CIA and NSA staffers in particular have long viewed DIA with derision, seeing their analysts as people who could not get jobs at better agencies, and reading their assessments with skepticism. DIA viewpoints can tend to reflect Joint Staff desires more than reality – this was especially true during Vietnam, with bad consequences – and the military need to be “on message” with the chain of command frustrates the competent analysts over at DIA’s main base on Bolling AFB at the southern tip of Washington, DC. Not for nothing does the old IC joke have it that CIA stands for “Christians in Action,” NSA is “Never Say Anything,” while DIA stands for “Do It Again.”
So what can we make of DIA’s sorta-leaked assessment on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities? Right-wingers may be correct that the Obama administration didn’t like this one, but it’s also important to keep in mind that DIA’s findings may be entirely incorrect. Having not read that analysis I won’t speculate further, but I have read a lot of DIA product over the years, and it’s often notso-hotso. (I don’t have much good to say about CIA’s finished intelligence either, but that stuff is at least almost always better written than DIA’s analysis.)
This was a rare case when an intelligence assessment became front-page news, by mistake. This story inspires little confidence in DIA or Congress. Let’s hope North Korean WMD analysts somewhere in IC – who have, let it be said, perhaps the hardest of all hard targets to figure out – are more on top of this crucial issue than DIA seems to be.