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India's nuclear tests: U.S. intelligence 'failure' seen

India/US graphic

Hearings, inquiry planned

May 13, 1998
Web posted at: 11:58 a.m. EDT (1558 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Republican chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence alleged Wednesday that U.S. intelligence gathering suffered a "colossal failure" in not detecting India's intention to set off underground nuclear tests this week.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said the U.S. intelligence community was caught completely off guard. "Something went wrong," he told CNN in a live interview. "It was a colossal failure of U.S. intelligence."

Shelby's committee planned to hold a hearing Wednesday on India, plus a closed hearing Thursday with top CIA officials to discuss the problem.

The inability to detect India's intentions is "the biggest failure of our intelligence gathering agencies in the past 10 years or more," he said. "Somebody is responsible for this."

Sen. Richard Shelby
Richard Shelby   

Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, agreed. "When we have had notice of preparation, we could talk to the Indians and persuade them not to do it," he said on Tuesday. "Here we didn't have notice and we lost the chance."

CIA to investigate intelligence lapse

The CIA announced on Tuesday it was launching a blue-ribbon assessment of U.S. intelligence performance on the India nuclear issue, to report to CIA Director George Tenet within 10 days.

The assessment team will be headed by retired Navy Adm. David Jeremiah, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Tenet said he will share the results of the assessment with the White House and Congress.

Report: Spy satellite showed test preparations

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that a U.S. spy satellite picked up clear-cut evidence of test preparations at midnight Sunday, six hours before the blasts.

But because no unusual activity had been detected earlier, none of the U.S. intelligence analysts responsible for tracking India's nuclear program were on duty.

Sen. Richard Shelby comments on the situation
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icon 527K/25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

They did not see the more revealing satellite photos until they arrived at work Monday, after the test had already been conducted.

Indian officials were careful to give no indications of the impending tests in talks with U.S. counterparts just days before the underground blasts. This, combined with the lack of intelligence warning, left U.S. officials in the dark.

Indian potential was well known

U.S. officials have told CNN that although they picked up no concrete signs of an imminent underground nuclear test, the United States was well aware of the Indian government's repeated warnings of its intentions to proceed with nuclear testing.

Several high-ranking U.S. officials have visited India in recent months to attempt to persuade India not to conduct further tests and to sign a global ban on nuclear testing.

Sources: CIA steps up focus on Pakistan, too

U.S. sources said that, in the wake of India's nuclear tests, the CIA and other intelligence agencies are also stepping up observation of neighboring Pakistan, which has fought three wars with India and promises to match its nuclear development.

CIA headquarters
CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia   

"We're focusing on the region intently," said one official, who acknowledged that additional satellite surveillance and other information-gathering devices are being adjusted to "tweak up our capabilities."

"The potential for possible Indian nuclear tests has been known for many years," the CIA said in announcing its assessment effort.

The CIA said the issue was given "close scrutiny" in 1995 and again in recent weeks after the firing of a Pakistani medium-range missile.

"It is apparent that the Indians went to some lengths to conceal their activities and intentions," the CIA said in an attempt to explain the intelligence community's apparent failure to forecast the Indian nuclear tests.

World Affairs Correspondent Ralph Begleiter contributed to this report.


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