India able to evade satellites

CIA intelligence was good, but deception was better, says nuclear researcher

By John Diamond / Associated Press

    WASHINGTON -- Easily evaded spy satellites and a failure to heed clear warnings contributed to the CIA's failure to foresee India's nuclear tests, observers say.
    U.S. intelligence officials said recent satellite pictures showed no signs of unusual activity at India's test range, some 70 miles from the border of arch-rival Pakistan. As a result, none of the imagery analysts responsible for India were on alert late last Sunday night when the first clear indications of impending tests emerged.
    "These guys don't always look at every picture that's taken," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a CIA watchdog group. "The system acquires significantly more imagery for archival purposes than is immediately exploited."
    Some nuclear experts credit India with knowing when to hide from U.S. spy satellites rather than American spies being asleep at the wheel.
    "It's not a failure of the CIA," said Indian nuclear researcher G. Balachandran. "It's a matter of their intelligence being good, our deception being better."
    R.R. Subramanian, a nuclear physicist with New Delhi's independent Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, said hiding preparations for the tests was merely a matter of choosing the hours when the satellites were looking elsewhere to move the necessary people and chemicals.
    CIA Director George Tenet told lawmakers in closed session that India deliberately chose a period of frequent sandstorms as the time to conduct the underground blasts. Those sand clouds would effectively blind the two KH-11 "Keyhole" photo-imagery spy satellites.
    State Department spokesman James Rubin accused India of waging "a campaign of duplicity," citing 20 recent high-level contacts in which Indian officials told U.S. counterparts there were no immediate plans to conduct nuclear tests.
    But others say it was a question of missing obvious clues.
    Before taking power in March, leaders of India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party pledged to develop the nation's existing nuclear weapons capability. An alarmed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wrote to President Clinton April 2 to say he had believed India was pressing ahead in its nuclear policy.
    These overt warnings apparently aroused little, if any, alarm in Washington. The indifference contributed to the relatively low priority the CIA apparently gave to its collection efforts over India, officials say.

Other factors

   * Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the CIA's surveillance of India was hampered by a shortage of human sources who might have warned of the impending tests.
   * The complexity of the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy plays a role. The National Reconnaissance Office runs the spy satellites; the U.S. Air Force looks for signs of nuclear testing; and a variety of agencies pull together intelligence on the spread of nuclear weapons.
Copyright 1998, The Detroit News