India's nuclear blasts jolt CIA into reviewing warning systems

July 04, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In a classified report on how to prevent future intelligence miscalculations, the CIA has zeroed in on early-warning systems, starting with an obscure post in charge of contrarian thinking.

In February, the national intelligence officer for warning, Robert Vickers, found himself at the center of the debate over whether India would test a nuclear weapon.

His job was to argue against conventional wisdom. But, after supervising a debate among the experts from the CIA and other agencies, Vickers accepted their consensus that India's new government, led by a Hindu nationalist party, would not conduct nuclear tests.

His decision not to challenge the experts is now seen in the intelligence world as a key incident in a long chain of missteps by U.S. officials, contributing to one of the worst intelligence failures in recent years. In May, India announced that it had detonated five nuclear devices.

The classified report, by retired Adm. David Jeremiah, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the intelligence services need to find new ways to issue warnings by making sure that contrarian views are heard.

In response to the report, John Gannon, the chairman of the interagency National Intelligence Council, is planning to expand the use of panels of outside experts, known inside the CIA as red teams, to challenge the assumptions of the CIA's analysts.

But such outside advice is unlikely to be considered a replacement for the full-time, in-house warning officer post. The officer is responsible for making sure that the United States is not surprised by major crises.

Pub Date: 7/04/98

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