Pokhran II : Why the US missed India's nuclear tests

Submitted by Mr. S.S. Vasan (May 13, 1998)

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 own."

Televised Announcement

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 official. 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.

Clinton Warned

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 test. 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 April.

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