"If they want to argue among themselves, that's fine," said Lamborn, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. However, he also said, "We should be cautious when evaluating different opinions, and certainly give credence to the more sobering possibilities. ... When it comes to national security, I don't think we want to have rose-colored glasses on, and sweep threats under the rug."
Clapper said that, in fact, U.S. intelligence officials today are more accustomed to predicting gloom and doom. "We rain on parades a lot," he said.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say the vigorous internal debate was spawn from a single mistake about a threat — and an overly aggressive response.
Congress demanded widespread intelligence reform after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, to fix a system where agencies hoarded threat information instead of routinely sharing it. Turf wars between the CIA and the FBI, in particular, were common. The CIA generally was considered the nation's top intelligence agency, and its director was the president's principal intelligence adviser.
The system was still in place in 2002, when the White House was weighing whether to invade Iraq. Intelligence officials widely — and wrongly — believed that then-dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. By December 2002, the White House had decided to invade and was trying to outline its reasoning for doing so when then-CIA Director George Tenet described it as "a slam-dunk case."
The consequences were disastrous. There were no WMDs, but the U.S. wound up in a nearly nine-year war that killed nearly 5,000 American soldiers, left more than 117,000 Iraqis dead, and cost taxpayers at least $767 billion. The war also damaged U.S. credibility throughout the Mideast and, to a lesser extent, the world. Tenet later described his "slam-dunk" comment as "the two dumbest words I ever said."
Two years later, Congress signed sweeping reforms requiring intelligence officials to make clear when the spy agencies don't agree. Retired Amb. John Negroponte, who became the first U.S. national intelligence director in 2005, said if it hadn't been for the faulty WMD assessment "we wouldn't have had intelligence reform."
"It was then, and only then that the real fire was lit under the movement for reform," Negroponte said in a recent interview. "In some respects it was understandable, because Saddam had had all these things before, but we just allowed ourselves to fall into this erroneous judgment."
To prevent that from happening again, senior intelligence officials now encourage each of the spy agencies to debate information, and if they don't agree, to object to their peers' conclusions. Intelligence assessments spell out the view of the majority of the agencies, and highlight any opposing opinions in a process similar to a Supreme Court ruling with a majority and minority opinion.
The result, officials say, is an intelligence community that makes assessments by majority vote instead of group-think, and where each agency is supposed to have an equal voice. In effect, officials say, the CIA has had to lean back over the last decade as officials have given greater credence to formerly marginalized agencies. Among them is the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which warned before the 2003 Iraq invasion that the CIA had overestimated Saddam's prospects to develop nuclear weapons.
Also included is the DIA, which has increased its ability during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to gather ground-level intelligence throughout much of the Mideast and southwest Asia. In an interview, DIA director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn would not discuss his agency's debated assessment on North Korea, but described a typical intelligence community discussion about "ballistic missiles in name-that-country" during which officials weigh in on how confident they feel about the information they're seeing.