U.S. espionage in India

Print edition : August 25, 2006

The book is a comprehensive survey of U.S. intelligence on the bomb in countries including India, Pakistan, the USSR and Israel.

INDIANS take a strange view of intelligence. Spy stories are chased energetically; their implications are ignored. The Anderson Papers excited many as proof of American perfidy, which they were not. Our policies, each formed in the respective national interest, clashed. But absent was any comment on how reports of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's talks with the Soviet Ambassador Pegov, at the height of the Bangladesh War in 1971, landed on Henry Kissinger's desk 48 hours later.

Thomas Powers, who wrote a book on the then Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, was precise. The CIA had "an agent" in the Indian Cabinet. Anderson called him "a source close to Mrs. Gandhi". He "whispered darkly that India might launch a major offensive against West Pakistan". Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram said as much publicly on January 18, 1972 in Patna.

Indira Gandhi herself played politics on matters of intelligence. She said at Kanpur on November 9, 1979 that Kissinger had told her that a member of her Cabinet had leaked out information about a possible attack on Pakistan in 1971 and that this had been confirmed in Thomas Powers' book on CIA chief Richard Helms, The Man Who Kept the Secrets, which was published recently. She professed not to know who he was. This, of course, was untrue. No one was sacked. Kissinger had met her in Delhi in October 1974.

Detailed reports of the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Kuznetsov's talks with "Indian officials" in New Delhi, on December 12, 1971, while the war was on, reached the CIA. How?

Anderson's disclosures were lapped up. His conclusions did not cause a ripple: "The fact was that the CIA had penetrated the Indian government at every level and these `independent sources' sent a steady stream of reports back to Washington on troop movements, logistics, strategy and even some of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's secret conversations" (emphasis added throughout).

No small achievement, then, that the CIA was taken unawares by the nuclear tests at Pokhran - May 18, 1974 and May 11 and 13, 1998. These are sad days for American intelligence after the fiasco of the absent WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) in Iraq, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the situation in Iran. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair did worse than not seek actionable intelligence intelligently. They suborned the intelligence services as well as legal advisers.

Intelligence was sought to confirm predetermined policy, not to shape it. It is a common human failing to shut one's eyes to unpleasant realities, especially among men charged with hubris. B.N. Mullick wrote a whole book to establish that the Intelligence Bureau reported on Chinese movements on the border. But from July 1, 1954, if not earlier, Nehru was set on a confrontationist course. Which is why he preferred the advice of K.M. Panikkar, whom he despised, to that of Girija Shankar Bajpai and the views of S. Gopal to those of his predecessor as head of the Ministry of External Affairs' (MEA) Historical Division, K. Zachariah. In 1979, the U.S. ignored the warnings of its charge d'affaires Brucelainger in Teheran based on those by Parsa Kia of the Foreign Office that dire consequences would follow if the Shah were allowed to enter the U.S. They did in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy. The fiercely independent National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. has rendered yeoman service in the pursuit of historical truth. On April 13, 2006, it posted an Electronic Briefing Book No. 187 on "U.S. Intelligence and the Indian Bomb" comprising a stimulating Introduction and texts of 40 documents. They are of varying degrees of significance. The Archive's forte are two-fold - skilful use of the Freedom of Information Act plus scholarly analysis. Scholars at the Archive carefully analyse the documents they procure. In India, documents obtained from the National Archives are offloaded on an uncritical public by sloppy researchers and dignified as "scholarly research".

News agencies have reported brief snippets from the Book. The documents should be studied along with the mass of material already in the public domain. What follows here are extracts which reveal that the United States carefully followed India's nuclear programme and that the analyses of its drift and of Indian policies were not wrong. One learns a good deal from the documents despite heavy excisions before declassification; for example on American perceptions of the Sangh Parivar.

The CIA reported from India as early as on October 22, 1964: "The Government of India (GOI) has all of the elements necessary to produce a nuclear weapon and it has the capability to assemble a bomb quickly. India does not plan to commence work on the bomb as yet because the GOI is convinced the CHICOMS [Chinese Communists] will not have an offensive nuclear capability for at least five years. In the meantime, should the situation change, India is relying on President Johnson's assurances to come to the aid of any nation menaced by China. (Source comment: When Parliament reconvenes early in November the GOI expects pressure from some deputies for India to produce a bomb. However, the GOI plans to resist these pressures.)"

Another cable reporting "Indian military views" in December 1964 is heavily censored. It remarked: "One consequence of an Indian program is that one more national state, India, could some day be able to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. In time, the Indians will gain access to rocket technology (perhaps through an earth satellite program) that would give them some delivery capability against us. Secondly, one more national state would have the capacity for starting nuclear actions with a fair chance of spreading and involving the United States." The deletions are in the original. Evidently, some army brass talked freely to American diplomats or CIA agents. "... [I]t follows from the above that there would be a reduction in our [U.S.] power to influence events in South Asia and to some extent throughout the world. India's economic development would suffer - and possibly at serious costs to the Indian social structure. Pressures for further proliferation in Asia would grow. Most notably in Pakistan.

"A Soviet offer of retaliation against China if India is attacked would very probably not be made at this time. Although the basic hostility between Russia and China and the harm done to Russian long-term interests from nuclear spread would seem to support such a guarantee being given to India, the Russians will probably judge the costs among the Communist parties to be too great."

The CIA reported on October 18, 1965 that it would take India a year "to develop nuclear weapons" after a decision to do so. "They could probably produce a weapon deliverable by the Canberra light bomber about two years after a first test." India could produce "about a dozen weapons in the 20 KT range by 1970".

A Special National Intelligence Estimate was produced three days later on "India's Nuclear Weapons Policy". Its opening page read thus: "The Problem: To estimate India's nuclear weapons policy over the next few years. Conclusions: A. India has the capability to develop nuclear weapons. It probably already has sufficient plutonium for a first device, and could explode it about a year after a decision to develop one. [Paras 1-3]. B. The proponents of a nuclear weapons program have been strengthened by the Indo-Pakistani war, but the main political result has been a strengthening of Prime Minister Shastri's position. We believe that he does not now wish to start a program and that he is capable of making this decision stick for the time being. [Paras 4-14]. C. However, we do not believe that India will hold to this policy indefinitely. All things considered, we believe that within the next few years India probably will detonate a nuclear device and proceed to develop nuclear weapons [Paras 15-20]." In 1974 the prediction came true.

In 1966, the U.S. Embassy was directed to keep a close watch on nuclear-related activities. Pokhran I in 1974 came as a humiliating shock to the CIA. Its Director asked "the Intelligence-Community Staff to assess" its own performance. How far was Pokhran I anticipated "both in a technical and political sense". The Report, produced in July 1974, is drastically cut.

One assessment read: "Some Indians have argued, however, that possession of even rudimentary weapons and a delivery system would provide a deterrent against China and reduce Indian dependence on the Soviet Union. The timing of the test may also have been keyed to boost sagging Indian morale in the face of increasing domestic economic problems and political discontent. Most Indians probably favoured the test, but might view the cost of acquiring a weapons and delivery system less enthusiastically... the Soviets share our concern about proliferation."

Four weeks later, an Intelligence Note reported a decline in the euphoria: "One Congress M.P. [Member of Parliament] told Embassy New Delhi that he did not take very seriously the government's claims about the exclusively peaceful purposes of the explosion, and he speculated that most of his colleagues shared his private scepticism. Military officers at the National Defence College expressed certainty that India would develop a weapons capability. An official of the Ministry of External Affairs, while acknowledging that nuclear explosions had few peaceful uses, worried that India's credibility would be eroded if no such uses were found. K. Subrahmanyam, Director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, alleged that no peaceful uses were considered possible before 1990, and that there was a tacit assumption among many Indians that the government's assertions were merely a public relations stand. Therefore, he argued, the erosion of India's credibility might prove to be more harmful than a declared nuclear weapons policy."

In January 1980 Indira Gandhi returned to power and was faced with the problem of supply of enriched uranium for the Tarapore Atomic Power Stations. Pokhran had disrupted the supplies of fuel, affected the Rajasthan APS and made nuclear non-proliferation a major international issue. Both Pokhran I and II were staged for domestic political gains. A.B. Vajpayee, significantly, sought to stage the tests in 1996 when his regime had no chance of surviving a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha.

In May 1982 Indira Gandhi visited the U.S., determined to establish rapport with the U.S. "Will avoid a confrontation during her visit", the CIA reported in December 1981. India came close to rescinding the 1963 Tarapur agreement. U.S. pressure, conveyed through Ambassador Harry Barnes' "Non-papers", forced her to reconsider her plans. These records were obtained by the Archive's Senior Fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson while conducting research for his book. Richelson has written extensively on the CIA and on espionage. The book, published on April 21 this year, is a comprehensive survey of U.S. intelligence on the bomb in other countries - Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, France, Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, Iraq, Libya, Iran, North Korea and, of course, India and Pakistan. The author relies on published works, interviews and archival material.

On India he relies on the definitive work - India's Nuclear Bomb by George Perkovich and Weapons of Peace by Raj Chengappa, a respected journalist. Although the main thrust of U.S. intelligence on India and Pakistan's nuclear programmes is well known, the book reveals some significant facts. Time there was when, in 1961, George McGhee in the State Department advocated helping India to build a bomb to counter China. He was rebuffed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson directed an all-out effort to get intelligence on India's nuclear programme. The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi was very active in reporting the developments. It was the same story in Islamabad. "It did not take such secret intelligence to keep the Indian nuclear weapons problem in front of key decision-makers such as President Richard Nixon, or his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had been cautioning Indira Gandhi against a test since 1970, when press reports suggested, prematurely, that India was considering conducting a nuclear test. The State Department, then under the command of William Rogers, informed India that employment of the plutonium from the CIRUS reactor for a test would be considered a violation of India's pledge of peaceful uses of the heavy water that had been provided by the United States.

"On May 18, 1972, Kissinger, in Nixon's name, commissioned another study of Indian nuclear developments. The resulting study, by an NSC interdepartmental group, again noted that India's nuclear energy program afforded the country the ability to conduct a test on short notice and `of mounting a rudimentary weapons program on short notice'. The group also wrote, six days before Indira Gandhi's visit to Trombay, that `there is no firm intelligence that Mrs. Gandhi has given a political go-ahead for detonating an underground nuclear device (which the Indians would undoubtedly label a peaceful nuclear device)'. It further reported that `our intelligence assessment is that over the next several years the chances are about even that India will detonate a nuclear device'."

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi in 1974.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

In Pakistan Robert Gallucci's trip was not wasted. He was able to accomplish more than serving as a delivery boy for highly classified satellite photographs. A bit of subterfuge allowed him to bring back some ground-level photographs of Kahuta. He managed to persuade U.S. ambassador Arthur Hummel to let him take a drive near the facility. He had first raised the idea with the embassy's political officer, who said he would go only if ordered by the ambassador. Gallucci then told Hummel that the political officer wanted to go, and Hummel gave the order. They took along an INR representative, who came equipped with a camera that was put to good use. Presidential waivers were made despite full knowledge of Pakistan's nuclear programme. They were stopped once Pakistan had served American interests in Afghanistan and Soviet troops withdrew. The author cites details of U.S.-Pakistan meetings on the subject.

Morarji Desai was not the Gandhian he made himself out to be. Soon after he was sworn in as Prime Minister in March 1977, he convened a meeting of his Cabinet's political affairs committee to discuss Indian nuclear strategy. Although no test was approved, Desai, according to Homi Sethna, gave him the "green signal to refine the design (of the explosive device)", which involved reducing the weight and diameter of the device through miniaturisation.

"Intelligence about Desai's instructions to Sethna apparently reached U.S. officials, since in May 1977 President Carter hurriedly appointed Robert Goheen as U.S. ambassador and requested he meet with Desai immediately and ask him to restrain India's nuclear weapons program. When the two met, Desai pledged, `I will never develop a bomb.'"

Apparently, "both the CIA and NSA probably also reported, later in the 1980s on India's covert acquisition of heavy water from foreign sources, including Norway. The CIA detected an illegal shipment of beryllium from West Germany to India late in the decade. In May 1989 director of Central Intelligence [Agency] William Webster told the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs that one of the indicators to the CIA of a country's interest in developing thermonuclear weapons was the acquisition of beryllium, which he explained was `usually used in enhancing fission reaction'. In addition, the CIA had noted a number of other indicators of Indian interest in developing a hydrogen bomb including purification of lithium, which is needed to produce the tritium used in thermonuclear explosions, and the separation of lithium isotopes."

Note what the author discloses: "India's success in preventing U.S. spy satellites from seeing signs of the planned tests days to weeks in advance was matched by its success in preventing acquisition of other types of intelligence. India's Intelligence Bureau ran an aggressive counterintelligence program, and the CIA, despite a large station in New Delhi, was unable to recruit a single Indian with information about the Vajpayee government's nuclear plans. Instead, the deputy chief of the CIA station in New Delhi was expelled after a botched try at recruiting the chief of Indian counterintelligence operations. Former ambassador Frank Wisner recalled that `we didn't have... the humans who would have given us an insight into their intentions'." Ambassadors do not keep aloof from the CIA's work, evidently. Their denials are false.

NSA's eavesdropping activities did not detect test preparations. "It's a tough problem," one nuclear intelligence expert told investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. India's nuclear weapons establishment would communicate via encrypted digital messages relayed via small dishes through satellites, using a system known as VSAT (very small aperture terminal), "a two-way version of the system used by satellite television companies". Good show. At the end of the day, Americans admitted that even if they had been better informed, they could not have prevented Pokhran II just as they could not deter Pakistan from staging its tests at Chagai.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×