Long before India detonated a nuclear device in May 1974, the U.S. Intelligence Community was monitoring and analyzing Indian civilian and military nuclear energy activities, according to documents released on April 13, 2006 by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The forty documents cover a forty-year time span, from 1958 to 1998 – whose original classifications range from unclassified to Top Secret Codeword – produced by interagency groups, the CIA, the State and Defense Departments, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The records were obtained by Archive Senior Fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson while conducting research for his published book, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (W.W. Norton).
The documents show that as early as 1958 the CIA was exploring the possibility that India might choose to develop nuclear weapons. The reports focus on a wide range of nuclear related matters – nuclear policy (including policy concerning weapons development), reactor construction and operations, foreign assistance, the tests themselves, and the domestic and international impact of the tests.
Documents from 1974-1975 and 1998 provide assessments of the reason why the U.S. Intelligence Community failed to provide warning of the 1974 and 1998 tests – assessments which are strikingly similar. They also include recommendations to address the deficiencies in performance that the assessments identified.
Below is the view of the US Intelligence community gleaned from classified documents towards India’s Nuclear tests and it’s potential.
As was the case with France, Israel, and a number of other countries, India’s path to a nuclear weapons capability was an incremental and prolonged one. Homi Bhabha, the father of the Indian bomb, moved in the same circles as Frédéric Joliot-Curie and other atomic physicists of the pre-World War II era. Bhabha left India in 1927 to study engineering at Cambridge, but the doctorate he received in 1935 was in physics. After he returned to India in 1939 the Second World War began, and Bhabha found himself stranded. He accepted the position of “reader” in theoretical physics at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. In 1941 he was promoted to professor of cosmic ray research.
In 1946 Bhabha became chairman of the newly formed Atomic Energy Research Committee. In 1948 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru submitted legislation to create an Atomic Energy Commission – legislation which imposed a veil of secrecy over atomic energy research and development and established government ownership of uranium, thorium, and all other relevant materials. By mid-August India had its own AEC, and Bhabha was named chairman of the three-member group.
In the 1950s there were further bureaucratic developments, the creation of plans, and attempts to acquire the resources needed for an atomic energy program. A nuclear cooperation agreement with France was signed in 1951. In 1954 a Department of Atomic Energy was established, with Bhabha as its secretary. In 1955 ground was broken at Trombay for the first Indian reactor, named Aspara.
From the beginning of the nuclear age, U.S. leaders were well aware that civilian nuclear research could advance a nation’s progress toward a nuclear weapons capability. Over the last five decades the United States has gathered intelligence on Indian nuclear activities, civilian and military, through all the means at its disposal – human intelligence, open source collection, communications intelligence, and overhead reconnaissance. Those activities, as demonstrated by the documents, allowed U.S. intelligence analysts to provide decision-makers with far more detailed assessments of Indian nuclear activities than would be available from public sources. At the same time, other documents show that the collective efforts of the organizations gathering intelligence on Indian nuclear activities — including the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Intelligence Agency, and State Department — did not result in U.S. intelligence analysts warning U.S. officials of India’s nuclear tests, carried out in May 1974 and May 1998.
The documents for this briefing were, with some exceptions, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act or from the CIA’s CREST data base at the National Archives and Records Administration for use in writing Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (W.W. Norton, 2006), by Archive Senior Fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson.
The first 16 documents for this briefing deal with one or both of two questions: does India have the capability to build a nuclear device? and what is likelihood that it will do so? Answering the first question required analysts to examine and evaluate the data concerning Indian organizations involved in atomic energy activities; the availability of resources (uranium, heavy water); the reactors in operation, under construction, or on the drawing board; the ability to produce plutonium or highly enriched uranium; and possible delivery systems.
Addressing the second question required analysts to examine the histories of key political and scientific personnel (for information as to their views on nuclear weapons) as well as the domestic political pressures facing the nation’s leaders. In addition, there was a need to assess the external pressures faced by Indian leadership – including security threats from China and Pakistan, and pressures to conform to international norms concerning nuclear proliferation.
India’s May 18, 1974, test settled conclusively the questions of whether and when, but also required the U.S. to venture into new areas, as demonstrated by the documents. One new task was to produce an independent assessment of India’s technical claims concerning the test (particularly its yield). Intelligence analysts also needed to explain why India chose to test, assess the immediate impact of the test, and look ahead in an effort to answer the question, “what next?” It was also vital to examine not only what had happened and was going to happen in India, but to explore why, despite the Intelligence Community’s awareness of Indian nuclear capabilities and the incentives to test, it had not been able to provide senior U.S. officials with advanced warning of the test.
By the 1980s, the 1974 test was well in the past and there had not been another. The documents from this period thus continued to explore Indian capabilities for building a bomb – particularly the July 1988 CIA assessment, India’s Potential to Build A Nuclear Weapon, and the factors – both technical and political (domestic and foreign) – that helped shape India’s nuclear policies.
By the beginning of 1998 India had come close to conducting its second test on several occasions but had pulled back – in 1995 due to American pressure that followed the discovery of test preparations by U.S. spy satellites. That may have helped convince U.S. analysts that despite the pledge by the newly-elected BJP-led administration to “induct” nuclear weapons into the Indian arsenal, no nuclear test would actually take place. Thus, an early assessment of BJP policy suggests that a change in Indian nuclear policy was not imminent.
Once the test did occur, without warning from the U.S. Intelligence Community, the Community was left, as in 1974, to assess the details of the test and explore its implications. As in 1974, it was also necessary for the Community to probe the causes of the failure and determine what steps should be taken to reduce the chances of a similar failure in the future.
As can be seen from this briefing gleaned from the classified intelligence documents itself that the US Intelligence community was highly concerned about its failure to detect India’s Nuclear tests in advance. The Community after identifying and assessing the deficiencies in performance that led to this failure made recommendations to determine what steps should be taken to reduce the chances of a similar failure in the future.
What were those steps taken by the US Intelligence community to track India’s Nuclear program? Was the crash of Air India Flight 101 near Mont Blanc in which Homi Bhabha was also travelling a direct result of such steps? Are the ongoing killings of India’s scientists around the country since decades a continuation of such policies? Is the Indian Intelligence community aware about those steps? If so, have they prepared a strategy and taken appropriate steps to counter such spying? If not, a good place to start would be to open a fresh investigation into the assassination of the father of our Nuclear program – Homi Bhabha.