WASHINGTON — The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified Thursday that North Korea now has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device, marking the first time a U.S. intelligence official has publicly said Pyongyang has crossed that critical technological threshold.
But other U.S. intelligence officials said they could not confirm Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby's remarks, and the DIA subsequently issued a statement saying Jacoby was merely "reiterating" previous testimony.
The contradictory information left it unclear whether the United States had obtained new intelligence suggesting a significant advance in North Korea's nuclear weapons efforts.
Jacoby's remarks came in response to questions from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. At one point, she said, "Admiral ... do you assess that North Korea has the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear device?"
Jacoby replied, "The assessment is that they have the capability to do that, yes, ma'am."
U.S. spy agencies have long suspected that North Korea is working to miniaturize a nuclear device that could function as a payload on one of its missile systems, which may be capable of reaching the West Coast. But congressional officials and North Korea experts said no U.S. official had ever said North Korea had succeeded in that task.
Jacoby did not elaborate or provide a basis for his statement, which caught lawmakers off guard.
In its statement, the DIA said that Jacoby broke no new ground in his testimony and that his comments echoed those made during a March appearance before the same committee.
"Vice Adm. Jacoby was reiterating his written testimony before the [Senate Armed Services Committee] on March 17, 2005," the statement said.
Yet Jacoby's statement in March focused on North Korea's missile development and did not specifically raise the point he made Thursday: that Pyongyang had developed the technology to marry its missiles with nuclear bombs to create an atomic weapon capable of hitting the United States.
A DIA spokesman would not address the seeming difference between the two testimonies, saying the DIA statement spoke for itself.
Some congressional staff members said they had been closely tracking the progress of North Korea's weapons program but were caught off guard by Jacoby's apparent candor. "We did not anticipate the answer we got. But the answer did not surprise us," said one senior congressional staffer at the hearing.
North Korea, a communist country that is largely closed to the outside world, is one of the most challenging targets for U.S. intelligence agencies. Details about its nuclear program are particularly hard to glean because Pyongyang is believed to have gone to great lengths to hide its efforts from satellites and other surveillance by putting key facilities underground.
A presidential commission on U.S. espionage recently concluded that intelligence on North Korea was particularly weak, according to officials with access to a chapter on North Korea that was not made public.
Democrats seized on Jacoby's remarks to criticize the Bush administration's policy on North Korea.
After Thursday's hearing, Clinton and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging the administration "to engage in bilateral diplomatic efforts with North Korea to address this serious threat."
The White House has refused to hold one-on-one talks with Pyongyang, instead supporting six-party negotiations that also involve China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
President Bush on Thursday reaffirmed his commitment to the six-nation talks, which are stalled. He said that although the U.S. wasn't sure whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Il could deliver a nuclear weapon, "I think it's best when you're dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong Il to assume he can."
During his testimony, Jacoby said U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has developed multistage intercontinental missiles capable of hitting the United States. A two-stage missile is believed capable of striking "Alaska and Hawaii, and I believe a portion of the Northwest," he said.
A three-stage missile "would be able to reach most of the continental United States," Jacoby said, adding that the three-stage missile remains a "theoretical capability in the sense that those missiles have not been tested."
A U.S. assessment from January 2002 concluded that North Korea had produced enough plutonium "for at least one and possibly two nuclear weapons." CIA Director Porter J. Goss testified in February that North Korea had since produced more weapons-grade plutonium.
Developing nuclear weapons requires clearing a series of challenging technical hurdles. Shrinking and adapting a nuclear device to fit on a missile and function after launch are among the most difficult.