Saturday, May 16, 1998

CIA searching for answers behind its India-Nuclear failure

 WASHINGTON (AP) -- Easily evaded spy satellites. A shortage of clandestine sources. Overworked satellite photo analysts. A failure to heed clear warnings. Each of these, observers say, contributed to the CIA's failure to foresee India's nuclear tests.

As the spy agency searches for what went wrong, the self-examination is revealing much more than a last-minute failure to grasp the significance of satellite photos that indicated nuclear tests were imminent.

U.S. intelligence officials, lawmakers who oversee the CIA and outside experts point to a wide range of flaws -- technical, organizational and human -- that contributed to what Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., called a "colossal failure" by the CIA.

India's five underground nuclear blasts last Monday and Wednesday sent tremors through the already tense region and threatened to undermine global arms control efforts.

Had a warning of the tests surfaced, critics of the agency said, top policy makers might have been able to dissuade India's newly installed Hindu nationalist government from going forward.

Others turn that view around, arguing that if only policy makers had responded to clear warning signs from India, the CIA would have been more attuned to signs of trouble.

Initially, the focus was on apparent failings at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, where analysts pore over spy satellite photography on computer screens and light tables looking for signs of trouble in a variety of overseas hot spots.

U.S. intelligence officials said recent pictures showed no signs of unusual activity at India's test range, a desert site 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."

CIA Director George Tenet named retired Adm. David Jeremiah to lead an inquiry into the agency's performance leading up to the nuclear tests, with his first findings expected next week.

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 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. And even when the clouds cleared, the shifting sand would conceal tire and tread tracks that might signal intense activity around the test site.

Two other "Lacrosse" satellites that use cloud-penetrating radar signals were also available to the CIA, according to Jeffrey Richelson, author of several books on U.S. intelligence.

But the orbit of such satellites is easily predictable, and U.S. officials now believe India's nuclear test operators were able to halt suspicious activity during the periods when the spy satellites were passing overhead.

Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the fault was not a question of technology -- "We're overinvested in technology," he said -- but in a shortage of human sources who might have warned of the impending tests.

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 released a manifesto that included a pledge to develop and refine the nation's existing nuclear weapons capability.

An alarmed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wrote to President Clinton and other Western leaders April 2 to say he had "every reason to believe that the Indian policy pronouncement connotes a giant step towards fully operationalizing Indian 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.

Part of the problem, and one the Jeremiah panel will examine, lies in the complexity of the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy.

The National Reconnaissance Office runs the spy satellites. The imagery and mapping agency examines the pictures. Th U.S. Air Force Technical Evaluation Center looks for signs of nuclear testing.

And a variety of intelligence agencies serve on a Nonproliferation Center pulling together intelligence on the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. But regional analysts working on nonproliferation issues -- including those following events in India -- report elsewhere.