American Intelligence Taken by Surprise

By Gertz, Bill | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 12, 1998 | Go to article overview
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American Intelligence Taken by Surprise

Gertz, Bill, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

U.S. intelligence agencies failed to detect any signs that India was preparing for the underground nuclear weapons blasts carried out yesterday and were embarrassed by New Delhi's extensive efforts to hide the tests.

The Indians engaged in elaborate "denial and deception" of U.S. satellites and other spying in the weeks leading up to the three tests at the nuclear center near Pokhran, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan bordering Pakistan.

"We had zero warning," said an administration official close to the CIA.

The intelligence failure has heightened concerns among U.S. officials about the ability to monitor cheating on a proposed international nuclear testing ban being considered for ratification by the Senate.

"There were three tests, and none were detected," said a Senate aide. "If our satellites can't tell us what was happening, what does that say about their ability to verify the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty]?"

The primary means of detecting preparations for nuclear tests is electronic and photographic surveillance by the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. Both agencies rely on "overhead" spy satellites.

"Our overhead saw and heard nothing," said a second administration official.

A CIA spokesman had no official comment.

John Pike, a technical intelligence specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, called the episode "the intelligence failure of the decade."

The intelligence community should have known about the test before it took place so that it could warn policy-makers, who could have taken diplomatic or other steps to avert it, he said.

"[The Indians] went out of their way to do it in a way that wouldn't be detected," said a third administration official in a position to know. "We've been watching the site fairly carefully and on a fairly regular basis. They clearly did things in a way that tried to rush it through."

Nuclear testing normally is preceded by increased vehicle and personnel activity at sites.

U.S. intelligence agencies learned of the blasts as the result of seismic monitoring, said U.S. officials.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry said, "We had no advance notification that the tests would occur." National Security Adviser Samuel Berger added, "We have made it quite clear to the Indians that we would strongly urge them not to undertake such a test."

Intelligence analysts believe the tests were carried out in part as the Indian response to Pakistan's April 10 test firing of 900-mile-range missiles.

"We could be looking at a nuclear arms race in South Asia," said Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Other specialists pointed to domestic political concerns on the part of the Indian government as prompting the tests, which are expected to prompt U.

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