WASHINGTON – The North Koreans have one or two nuclear missiles that are capable of reaching the United States, CIA Director George Tenet told a Senate panel on Wednesday.
"I think the declassified answer is yes, they could do that," Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee when asked whether there is a likelihood that the North Koreans could shoot a rocket that could hit the West Coast.
The three-stage version of the Taepo Dong 2 missile has already been ground-tested, said Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but it has not been flight-tested.
Though intelligence reports have said as early as December 2001 that the North Koreans could launch a nuclear payload across the Pacific Ocean, it's only now, since North Korea abandoned its voluntary moratorium on flight tests of its long-range missiles and relaunched its nuclear weapons program, that officials are wondering to what extent North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is willing to go to gain political leverage.
The U.S. government has reported since 2001 that if successful, a North Korean three-stage rocket could reach a distance of 9,300 miles -- far enough to hit all of North America -- with several hundred pounds of weapons payload on it.
They have not been successful yet. In 1998, the North Koreans tried to use the three-stage version to launch a satellite into orbit. It failed to ignite. Intelligence reports warned, however, that the easier two-stage Taepo Dong 2, which is easier to use, could hit Alaska or Hawaii.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that North Korea's recent actions make it all the more important for the United States to continue to build a missile shield.
"Technology and time means regimes like North Korea will increasingly have the ability to strike at the United States," Fleischer responded without having heard the Tenet testimony. "We do have concerns ... about North Korea's missile development programs."
After Tenet and Jacoby's statements, U.S. intelligence officials tried to play down the comments, saying North Korea has demonstrated no new missile capabilities in the last year.
The White House was releasing documents to answer questions about North Korea's weapons program in an attempt to tamp down some of the concerns. It may also be attempting to put a lid on questions about North Korea as it tries to deflect criticism that the United States is being hypocritical in claiming Iraq is a greater threat to national security than North Korea.
"They are both important priorities," Fleischer said. "The question is, what are the means best used to deal with each priority."
After the hearing, committee chairman John Warner, R-Va., told Fox News that he expects Tenet to submit a "releasable communication" that would explain his conclusion that a ballistic missile could hit the United States.
Warner said he asked for "amplification" of that statement during a closed door session this afternoon and because of the interest it generated, he expects the director will submit a statement "promptly" further explaining what he said.
On Wednesday, International Atomic Energy Agency chairman Mohamed ElBaradei said that his group will send to the United Nations a declaration that North Korea is in noncompliance of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
ElBaradei said that while the IAEA board of governors wanted to give North Korea another chance to come around after it dropped out of the treaty last month, further action must be taken to make sure that other nations do not just drop out of the treaty.
ElBaradei said he is especially concerned about how the North Korea situation may influence Iraq, where he is headed in the next few weeks to discuss that country's plans to build nuclear power plants.
Fleischer and ElBaradei agreed that Iraq and North Korea demand different responses.
They said diplomacy has failed to curb Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program for more than a decade, thus Bush made military action a front-and-center option.
"That's not the case with North Korea," Fleischer said, saying Bush believes diplomatic pressure can contain North Korea.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, appearing before the House International Relations Committee, said the United States is urging China to try to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear program. China is the main supplier of foreign assistance and energy aid to North Korea.
"We are doing everything we can to persuade the Chinese that the problem in North Korea is not just a problem between North and the United States. It is between North Korea and the region and North Korea and the world," Powell said.
Fox News' Per Carlson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.