India blasts take U.S. intelligence by surprise
By Bill Gertz
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
U.S. intelligence agencies failed to detect any signs that India was preparing for the underground nuclear weapons blasts carried out yesterday and were embarrassed by New Delhi's extensive efforts to hide the tests.
The Indians engaged in elaborate "denial and deception" of U.S. satellites and other spying in the weeks leading up to the three tests at the nuclear center near Pokhran, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan bordering Pakistan.
"We had zero warning," said an administration official close to the CIA.
The intelligence failure has heightened concerns among U.S. officials about the ability to monitor cheating on a proposed international nuclear testing ban being considered for ratification by the Senate.
"There were three tests, and none were detected," said a Senate aide. "If our satellites can't tell us what was happening, what does that say about their ability to verify the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty]?"
The primary means of detecting preparations for nuclear tests is electronic and photographic surveillance by the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. Both agencies rely on "overhead" spy satellites.
"Our overhead saw and heard nothing," said a second administration official.
A CIA spokesman had no official comment.
John Pike, a technical intelligence specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, called the episode "the intelligence failure of the decade."
The intelligence community should have known about the test before it took place so that it could warn policy-makers, who could have taken diplomatic or other steps to avert it, he said.
"[The Indians] went out of their way to do it in a way that wouldn't be detected," said a third administration official in a position to know. "We've been watching the site fairly carefully and on a fairly regular basis. They clearly did things in a way that tried to rush it through."
Nuclear testing normally is preceded by increased vehicle and personnel activity at sites.
U.S. intelligence agencies learned of the blasts as the result of seismic monitoring, said U.S. officials.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said, "We had no advance notification that the tests would occur." National Security Adviser Samuel Berger added, "We have made it quite clear to the Indians that we would strongly urge them not to undertake such a test."
Intelligence analysts believe the tests were carried out in part as the Indian response to Pakistan's April 10 test firing of 900-mile-range missiles.
"We could be looking at a nuclear arms race in South Asia," said Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
Other specialists pointed to domestic political concerns on the part of the Indian government as prompting the tests, which are expected to prompt U.S. economic sanctions as required by at least two U.S. anti-nuclear proliferation laws.
The largest of the blasts had an estimated yield of between 20 and 30 kilotons. A kiloton is equal to about 1,000 tons of TNT.
Indian press accounts have said the government's decision to "go nuclear" with the tests -- the first since Indian exploded its first device in 1974 -- were due in part to the failure of the United States to curb Chinese missile and nuclear exports to Pakistan.
The Indian nuclear tests are a blow to the Clinton administration's efforts to win Senate approval of the treaty banning all nuclear tests. That treaty was submitted in September.
A Senate aide said yesterday that the Indian nuclear test triggers a U.S. law that allows the United States to resume nuclear testing if any state conducts an underground blast after September 1996.
"This means that the United States is legally free to engage in nuclear testing," the aide said. "It debunks the administration's claim that the test ban is OK because we're no longer in the testing business. We're back in it."
Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a May 6 letter to the Appropriations Committee that the test ban treaty "has not been and may never be ratified by the U.S. Senate."
The treaty must be ratified by 44 specific countries including India, which he noted has rejected it "outright."
"I do not expect [Foreign Relations] Committee consideration of the treaty this session," Mr. Helms, North Carolina Republican, said in the letter. It was sent to oppose an administration funding request for international nuclear monitoring systems under the treaty because the pact has not been ratified.
The Indian test also could lead China to resume nuclear tests, the latest of which took place in 1996. China has said it would halt tests as long as India refrained.
The CIA said in a report to Congress last year that the Indians probably put off a test in 1995 because it would "significantly damage" its relations with foreign countries and undermine efforts to attract foreign investment.
The CIA report said India and Pakistan "can assemble a small number of nuclear weapons on short notice."
According to U.S. nuclear specialists, the Indians have a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program that could include bombs capable of creating a half-megaton explosion -- the equivalent of 500,000 tons of TNT.
Government officials said it's likely Pakistan will respond to the tests by conducting its own.
The Clinton administration is expected to move quickly to impose economic sanctions on India as required by a nuclear nonproliferation law in part to deter any tests by Pakistan, said officials.
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