Despite the billions of dollars spent to detect nuclear proliferation, the U.S. intelligence community failed to provide warning of India’s nuclear tests, senior officials said, and the Clinton administration, Congress and the CIA all launched investigations Tuesday into why.
White House and congressional officials expressed disbelief and even outrage that the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the nation’s many other intelligence arms did not provide at least several days’ notice--especially since the three detonations Monday were conducted at the same site as India’s last nuclear test in 1974.
“It looks to me like this is a colossal failure of our intelligence-gathering system, perhaps the greatest failure in a decade,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
A senior administration official observed that “this is a very big deal, especially because nonproliferation is supposed to be the No. 1 priority of the intelligence community. And since a test was conducted there before, it shouldn’t have been a mystery.”
As a region with one of the heaviest concentrations of weapons of mass destruction, South and Central Asia--especially India and nearby states such as Pakistan, China, Kazakhstan, Iran and Iraq--have long been a special focus of U.S. intelligence.
The Indians in this instance may have disguised their plans with unusual zeal, taking advantage of recent reductions in U.S. intelligence capacities and even of information once passed by American officials to New Delhi in an effort to avert an earlier detonation by India, some experts said.
But why various agencies did not warn of the latest Indian nuclear tests will be something the administration will look at “carefully” and “we’ll go back and look and see how much we knew and how we knew it,” White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Tuesday.
The Senate plans hearings on the topic beginning Thursday. “We want to know why this happened, how this happened, who was asleep, why they were asleep,” Shelby said. “We simply cannot and must not tolerate such failure on the part of the intelligence community.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) added, “A thorough review needs to be made of the whole CIA operation.”
George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, has asked retired Navy Adm. David Jeremiah, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to investigate and report back in 10 days. The agency is also launching an internal review of its system for monitoring tests, U.S. officials said.
In a statement, the CIA said Tuesday that “Tenet strongly believes that we have a professional obligation to review all the facts and determine what lessons can be learned from the situation.”
The House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee announced Tuesday that it will await the outcome of Jeremiah’s report, then hold its own hearings beginning June 2 or 3 to determine what can be done to avoid future intelligence failures. The committee review may provide further insight into whether key intelligence capabilities have been eroded and how they could be restored, the committee said in a statement.
The U.S. intelligence community, which operates on an annual budget of $27 billion to $30 billion, is now scrambling to beef up its ability to detect nuclear tests by several other Asian nations, notably Pakistan and China.
The administration anticipates that these nations may now conduct their own tests. India has already declared that it needs more experiments to determine whether its weapons system is operational.
The CIA statement said the potential for nuclear tests had been known for “many years.” Scrutiny had been devoted to the possible dangers in late 1995 and after Pakistan last month tested a missile with a 900-mile range, enough to reach deep into India. The missile was believed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
In the CIA’s defense, the statement noted that the development and testing of nuclear weapons is an “extraordinarily important and difficult target” for the U.S. “It is apparent that the Indians went to some lengths to conceal their activities and intentions,” it added.
Administration officials now assert that the Indian government engaged in a well-orchestrated diplomatic and intelligence ruse to cover their tracks for weeks before the nuclear test in the Rajasthan desert of northwest India.
One administration official said the United States, fearing India was getting ready for a nuclear test in 1995, sought to head it off by secretly sharing with Indian officials U.S. intelligence that pointed to preparations for a blast. Now, the official said, some in the administration suspect that India used that information to help it conceal preparations for this week’s test.
Last month, Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., visited India with a high-level delegation and urged the new government of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to show restraint, administration officials say.
The administration relayed the same strong message during the subsequent visit of a team from India’s Foreign Ministry to Washington. Indian officials provided the same reassurances that no decisions would be made until a strategic review was finished later this year.
“It’s clear now that it was all an elaborate cover and concealment while they were preparing for their own test,” an administration official said. “They did a superb job of covering up what they had in mind.”
Still, U.S. intelligence should have detected one of several possible physical clues that India was preparing the test site, he said.
Robert M. Gates, director of Central Intelligence in the Bush administration, said charges that the CIA was not looking or paying attention are unfair and premature. He suggested that reduced resources should be examined as part of the problem.
“My understanding is that after the Pakistani missile test, the intelligence community told the administration that there would probably be an Indian response, and that this was one of several possibilities. They didn’t say specifically that this would happen, but it was on the list,” he said in an interview.
Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Janet Hook contributed to this report.
* DETERRING ARMS DIFFICULT: Other nations may not have enough leverage to halt India’s nuclear weapons program. A16
* RELATED COVERAGE: A5, A16