A Look Back Reveals Forward Thinking

By Walter Pincus
Monday, January 14, 2008

Insights still worth pondering today are contained in a 33-year-old top-secret Special National Intelligence Estimate called "Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons." The 50-page assessment was released in declassified form by the CIA last week with some 40 others in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Aug. 23, 1974, document contained some fairly accurate findings and predictions. It reported that Israel "has produced nuclear weapons," and that India, which had conducted "peaceful" nuclear weapons tests, would probably "proceed to fabricate weapons covertly." It added: "An Indian decision to proceed with an overt weapons program on any scale will be one factor inclining some other countries to follow suit."

Enemies seeking nuclear weapons would become a motivation for "neighbors or potential antagonists" to join the race for nuclear weapons, the NIE predicted, adding: "The strongest impulses will probably be felt by Pakistan and Iran."

The estimate also accurately put Taiwan among the top prospects to seek a nuclear weapons "option" because its program was run largely by its military. The report estimated that Taiwan needed another five years before it would be "in a position to fabricate a nuclear device."

As a result, the United States applied pressure on Taiwan's government after 1974 to halt its program. But it was not until 1986, when a CIA-recruited agent inside the nuclear facility disclosed what was still going on, that the Taiwanese weapons effort was dropped.

A less accurate prediction was that South Africa, in 1974, was "of more concern in the proliferation context as a potential supplier of nuclear materials and technology than as a potential nuclear weapons power."

The assessment added: "South Africa probably would go forward with a nuclear weapons program if it saw a serious threat from African neighbors beginning to emerge." Then the assessment went awry. "Such a serious threat is highly unlikely in the 1970s," it said.

The South African apartheid government already had felt growing international pressure against its position, and by 1974 then-Prime Minister John Vorster had authorized a weapons program. A nuclear test was prepared for 1977 but delayed when discovered by a Soviet satellite. The program slowed, and it was not until the 1980s, when Cuban troops were in Africa, that then-Foreign Minister Pik Botha disclosed publicly that his government had the ability to build nuclear weapons.

Another 1974 prediction -- that Argentina was "vigorously" pursuing a small nuclear program that "probably will provide the basis for a nuclear weapons capability in the early 1980s" -- has turned out to be half true.

Buenos Aires announced in late 1983 that for more than five years it had secretly been developing a gas-diffusion enrichment facility capable of producing slightly enriched uranium. But another part of the 1974 estimate seems to have been borne out -- that strong international pressure to stop nuclear weapons elsewhere, such as in Brazil, would lead Argentina away from having weapons of its own.

One analysis that contained disagreements among intelligence agencies is worth noting, in light of today's situation in Asia. The CIA, the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Army's intelligence arm all believed that Japan "would not embark on a program of nuclear weapons development in the absence of a major adverse shift in great power relationships which presented Japan with a clear cut threat to its security."

On the other hand, the heads of Air Force and Navy intelligence, both of which had bases in Japan, said there was "a strong chance that Japan's leaders will conclude that they must have nuclear weapons if they are to achieve their national objectives in the developing Asian power balance." They thought such a decision could be made by Tokyo "in the early 1980s."

Japanese leaders didn't make that move at the time, but those concerns of three decades ago have been raised more recently as North Korea has moved toward developing nuclear weapons.

Another noteworthy conclusion from the 1974 document: "Terrorists might attempt theft of either weapons or fissionable materials" that would be "useful for terror or blackmail purposes even if they had no intention of going on to fabricate weapons."

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