WASHINGTON -- The United States was caught off guard by India's recent nuclear test because American intelligence officials didn't believe India's new leaders would follow through on a campaign pledge to make their country a nuclear power, an inquiry concluded yesterday.
This fundamental misjudgment of India's new Hindu nationalist government points to flaws in how the United States collects and analyzes intelligence, said retired Adm. David Jeremiah, who conducted the probe. But the main flaw he cited was basic to spycraft.
They failed to "think like the other nation thinks," Jeremiah said of the CIA and other U.S. spy organizations.
Their inability to predict and detect preparations for the Indian nuclear test was the latest embarrassment for the U.S. intelligence community, which has been surprised several times in recent years.
Spy agencies need leaders more willing to take risks, said the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also called for improved cooperation among the various branches of the intelligence community.
Even with advance warning, the United States probably could not have persuaded the Indians to scrap their tests, Jeremiah said. But now that India and Pakistan have declared that they are nuclear powers and escalated tensions in South Asia, U.S. diplomats will have to be vigilant to grasp the two countries' intentions toward each other, he said.
The failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to anticipate India's nuclear explosion May 11 sparked furious denunciations from Capitol Hill and finger-pointing inside the Clinton administration. The CIA was so unprepared at the time of the blast that analysts responsible for tracking the Indian program were not on alert, the Washington Post reported.
In the midst of the furor, CIA Director George Tenet called on Admiral Jeremiah, who retired in 1994, to find out what went wrong.
According to Jeremiah's account, the intelligence failure stemmed from a basic misjudgment about India's intentions.
India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- which came to power in March -- had pledged for years to make India a nuclear power. India had not conducted a nuclear test since 1974.
Yet U.S. officials believed, Jeremiah reported, that, once elected, the BJP would be dissuaded from carrying out tests by the threat of U.S. sanctions, and would not want to "throw away all the economic advantages to be gained by not testing."
This misperception was compounded by inadequate "human intelligence" -- spying by agents within India -- and poor coordination within the intelligence community, which prevented U.S. officials from seeing the big picture, Jeremiah said.
As a result, the United States was lulled by India's deceptive tactics, including reassuring statements to American officials that it would wait to put in place a national security council before picking up its nuclear program.
With all the spy agencies' technical capability to generate reams of information, they fall short in studying and analyzing what they collect, Jeremiah said. There is "an awful lot of stuff on the cutting room floor at the end of the day that we have not seen."
Because of inadequate staffing, the agencies missed important clues from satellite photography that Jeremiah's review panel was able to piece together afterward, he said.
He dismissed reports that India had set up decoy operations elsewhere to draw satellite attention away from the site.
In cases of a major change in government, as occurred in India, the CIA should bring in outside experts to test its own judgments. It needs a "contrarian" viewpoint, Jeremiah said.
Faulting senior intelligence officials, he said they should aggressively pursue the information they believe needs to be collected, and not wait to be told what policy-makers want.
He said the agencies put too much emphasis "rogue states" at the expense of learning about nations with vast destructive potential, such as India and Pakistan. Rogue states usually refers to Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Jeremiah described his findings to reporters yesterday and also briefed the Senate intelligence committee.
Pub Date: 6/03/98