John Pike

The comments by White House press secretary Mike McCurry and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger suggest that the Indian nuclear weapons tests represent a major intelligence failure. The US Government had no advance indication that the tests would take place, and as of Monday afternoon the National Security Advisor did not even have independent confirmation that the tests had taken place.

Given the very high priority that is, or at least should be, attached to efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, these are the wrong answers from the White House. While Indian denial and deception activities may have complicated the task of monitoring test preparations, the reaction from McCurry suggests that there was little if any indication from the intelligence community of a heightened probability of Indian nuclear weapons testing. The failure is not simply one of collection, which could be and apparently was frustrated by Indian denial and deception activities. The failure is also one of assessment, as analysis should have suggested a significantly increased probability of a test, and the probability of Indian measures to hide preparations for a test. This should have formed the basis for a sustained public diplomacy effort by the US Government to discourage India from testing nuclear weapons. But there is certainly nothing in the public record over the past several weeks suggesting that the Administration was actively working to strongly discourage such tests.

Berger's late afternoon comment about the absence of independent confirmation is, if anything, more troubling, as it suggests that either such intelligence was not made available to the White House, or that Berger did not trouble himself to consult US intelligence reports on the subject, which surely were available so many hours after the fact.

All of which confirms the proposition that the current organization of the US intelligence community to cover counter-proliferation issues is broken and needs to be fixed. This latest failure is in line with last Fall's mixup over allegations of Russian nuclear weapon testing, which took far too long to resolve [there was no test].

Those elements of the US intelligence community responsible for monitoring nuclear weapons and other proliferation issues are under-funded and poorly organized. Rather than remaining scattered among obscure corners of the government, they need to be brought together into a new National Special Weapons Intelligence Agency, which would provide the focus and visibility needed to avoid future intelligence failures.

If adequate warning had been provided, the US government might have succeeded in convincing India not to conduct these tests. In the past, such warnings have discouraged other testing activities, and improved intelligence might have averted this latest episode, the last chapter of which has yet to be written.

A special government commission is currently conducting a study of the organization of the US intelligence community to address proliferation issues, and the formation of a new National Special Weapons Intelligence Agency should be their first recommendation.

Additional background information on the FAS proposal for a National Special Weapons Intelligence Agency is @