By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The congressman at the center of an international furor over North Korea's nuclear capabilities is one of the leading voices in the House of Representatives against cutting the budget for missile systems.
Republican Representative Doug Lamborn, whose Colorado district is a center for U.S. missile defense, made headlines around the world on Thursday after he quoted the Defense Intelligence Agency as saying North Korea likely had a nuclear bomb that could be launched from a missile.
The rare, although not unprecedented, public disclosure of an assessment from a U.S. spy agency that Pyongyang may already have nuclear-capable missiles added to tensions on the Korean peninsula, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has frequently threatened war in recent weeks.
Lamborn told Reuters on Friday that he wanted the American public to be aware of the threat, explaining he had not done anything wrong by repeating information from a classified Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, because it was a passage marked unclassified.
"Given the tension over North Korea, it seemed very timely to me," Lamborn said in an interview.
Lamborn spoke at the hearing two days after President Barack Obama released a budget plan that included cutting $550 million from spending on missile defense. Republicans have been citing the threat from North Korea to argue against the cuts.
He said the proposed reductions had been on his mind when he was preparing his questioning of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday.
Lamborn said he believed the Pentagon was handling the North Korean threat correctly in the short term, but that he worried about the longer-term implications of possible cuts in military spending.
"Mostly, I don't want to see our national defense compromised when there's valid threats out there," he said.
WORKING ON LEGISLATION
Lamborn is working on legislation to restore funding for missile defense.
At the public hearing, he referred to a section of a classified March DIA report on Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities that read: "DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low."
Lamborn said he had checked in advance that the material was declassified, but added the threat was so serious from North Korea that Americans needed the information.
"The Defense Intelligence Agency is a very respected intelligence agency and I take their work very seriously," he said during the interview on Friday.
U.S. officials said the passage Lamborn quoted had been mistakenly marked as unclassified.
A co-chairman of the Missile Defense Caucus, Lamborn has since 2007 represented a district in Colorado containing several installations involved in Air Force activity, and the Star Wars anti-missile program in particular.
Facilities in the area include Cheyenne Mountain, the underground headquarters of the military unit that monitors North American airspace for possible missile or other attacks, and an Air Force base where missile defense technology has been tested.
Lamborn's disclosure was not the first time such material had been made public in an unclassified setting.
In 2005, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, then DIA director, was asked by then-Senator Hillary Clinton at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing if the DIA assessed that North Korea could arm a missile with a nuclear device.
"The assessment is that they have the capability to do that, yes, ma'am," Jacoby answered.
In March 2011, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, Jacoby's successor as DIA director, referred to missile-deliverable nuclear warheads and used the word "plutonium" before the same Senate committee.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Peter Cooney)