Pokhran II : Why the US missed India's nuclear tests
WASHINGTON, May 12 - Despite a $27 billion budget and a galaxy of
spy satellites, U.S. Intelligence agencies failed to detect
India's preparation for Monday's nuclear blast. Why? U.S.
officials are blaming it on a leak to The New York Times.
Senior Intelligence and military officials tell NBC News that
India put its nuclear testing equipment underground in 1996
following a leak to The New York Times that U.S. spy satellites
were monitoring that nation's nuclear test site.
"There was a leak that we knew would have a reaction and
it did," said one senior intelligence official. "We watched as
they put it underground... We warned back then that India now
had the capability to test very quickly and predicted that we
wouldn't be able to tell."
The Times report ran Dec. 14, 1995, and quoted unnamed
government officials as saying satellites had recorded activity
in western India that suggested a test might be imminent. No
tests occurred and an Indian government spokesman said the Times
report was "highly speculative." As a result, said officials, India was
able to very "quickly and subtly" make preparations for the test of three
nuclear devices Monday.
In fact, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger told
reporters the United States still had no confirmation of the test
nearly 12 hours after the blast occurred.
India calculated the orbits of spy satellites and then
moved equipment at times when they believed nothing was overhead.
India, several officials noted, has long had a space program and
is capable of determining what satellites are in which orbit.
"They were in our blind spot," said a senior military official.
Moreover, intelligence officials note that the Indian
nuclear weapons program is the "most secretive" of all Third
World programs. "We know more about the North Korean program
than we do about the Indian program."
Satellite Imaging Capability
The reasons, say officials in both Washington and New
Delhi, are varied. India has its own satellite-imaging
capability, which gives it an understanding of what can and can't
be seen from space. It's nuclear program is kept separate from
its military, which like many militaries is prone to boasting and
leaking. And unlike many programs, India's is not as dependent
on outside help. India has a large pool of trained nuclear
scientists and electrical engineers and an industrial
infrastructure capable of producing key equipment.
Much U.S. intelligence on other nations' nuclear programs
is derived from electronic eavesdropping on sales of equipment
related to weapons development. India has prevented Western
intelligence from recruiting spies in India by an aggressive
program of counterintelligence that includes surveillance and
even attempted recruitment of diplomats and suspected agents.
"They are very, very good," said one official.
"Remember, this is the same country that produced the
scientists who designed the Pentium chips," added an official.
"They don't need a lot of outside help. They can do it on their
CIA officials say the United States did not know anything
about the tests until Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
announced the tests on television Monday morning, four hours
after they had taken place. The announcement even preceded
analysis of the seismic data on the tests.
"A lot of people had their hair on fire," said one
Intelligence officials say policy officials deserve some
of the blame for the tests, noting that intelligence officials
have repeatedly warned that India's Hindu Nationalist BJP party
was serious about "going nuclear."
Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United
Nations, told the Pakistani government last month that he was
impressed with BJP "restraint" when he met with party officials
prior to his visit to Islamabad.
"The U.S. charge d'affaires got his butt chewed by the
Pakistanis last night," an official noted, saying that the United
States should have known of the Indian plan and that the tests
proved there was little restraint in New Delhi.
The Pakistani ambassador to the United States said Tuesday
that his prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had warned President Bill
Clinton of India's intentions, if not its specific plans.
"South Asia has been on the back burner in this
administration," said another official. "They have taken Indian
restraint for granted and didn't take the BJP threats seriously."
As for why India tested the weapons now, the intelligence
assessment is that the tests were driven more by domestic
political concerns, rather than any action by Pakistan.
"The BJP couldn't get budget through by the end of the
month without something to help them. If the budget deal fell
through, they would have had to call new elections," said a
senior intelligence official. "It was done clearly for
nationalistic and domestic political concerns."
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials say that in spite
of Pakistani claims that it will match India's nuclear tests,
there are no indications that Pakistan is preparing for such a
The United States has moved its satellites and increased
electronic surveillance to monitor Pakistan's nuclear test site
in the Chagai Hills in the desert of western Pakistan.
Officials note that Sharif is scheduled to return to
Islamabad quickly from a trip to Kazakhstan. Once home, say
officials, the United States expects some decisions.
U.S. officials expect that if the Pakistanis don't
detonate a nuclear device, they will probably again test the
Ghauri missile, which is nuclear-capable. Pakistan first tested
the missile, which it bought from North Korea, the first week of
[Next : Pokhran II : A Voice for Humanity]