Sattelite story : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Here is the article mentioned in a previous thread. First report no problems. Second report a few hours. Now 3 days. Is it really back yet?,2669,ART-40599,FF.html

The Pentagon on Y2K. Defense policy on the Year 2000 computer conversion issue.

By John Diamond Washington Bureau January 13, 2000 WASHINGTON -- The nation's image-collecting spy satellites were all but blinded by a Y2K computer bug for nearly three days, an outage far more substantial than the Pentagon initially reported, according to knowledgeable government officials.

While the Pentagon first portrayed the interruption as lasting a few hours, in fact virtually the entire constellation of high-accuracy optical and radar spy satellites was either out of service or functioning far below capacity for most of the New Year's holiday weekend.

Though no emergency occurred, the three-day interruption came at a time when the entire U.S. intelligence community was on global alert for potential terrorist activity relating to the year 2000 celebrations.

The interruption began when a computer patch intended to avert any Y2K glitches failed to function properly, resulting in data from five spy satellites coming in as undecipherable garble.

Within a few hours, technicians at the Pentagon's main satellite ground station, the Army's Ft. Belvoir in suburban Virginia, redirected satellite signals to a receiving station at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. They then began a slow process of manually deciphering the signals into usable imagery.

As the problem emerged on New Year's Eve, controllers greatly narrowed the data they were collecting so that images of only the top-priority targets were painstakingly recovered. This effort enabled the Pentagon to assert in news conferences that it managed to collect most of the intelligence it needed.

The lost spy satellite imagery represented "a significant source of information in our national intelligence capabilities. It was not an unimportant dimension," Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre said in a Pentagon news conference on Jan. 4. "Fortunately, because we were able to restore operations through the backup procedures so quickly, it has an insignificant impact when we look back in retrospect."

But officials said privately that the glitch seriously "degraded" the flow of satellite imagery throughout the weekend, and that the vast majority of what would normally be collected was lost.

How a Y2K problem that even Hamre termed "significant" could turn up in an area as sensitive as the nation's spy satellite system, and virtually nowhere else in the vast military network of computers, is something Pentagon officials were unable or unwilling to explain.

Hamre did not return a phone call seeking comment, and other Pentagon officials declined to comment on the record.

None of the security threats that had U.S. officials on edge over the holiday weekend emerged. But the interruption in spy satellite imagery was felt throughout the intelligence community, up to the level of the White House, which receives a daily diet of classified imagery focusing on areas of national security concern.

"I was aware of the problem because all of a sudden there were no pictures coming in," a senior administration official said. When an intelligence officer arrived the Tuesday after New Year's for the official's daily briefing, the official was presented satellite images taken before and after the computer glitch. The pictures indicated nothing unusual had gone on in the intervening time.

The year 2000 flaw interrupted the highly classified intelligence collected from all three of the U.S. electro-optical imaging satellites orbiting Earth and from both of the radar imaging satellites, which can assemble a detailed picture of activities on the ground even in darkness or through cloud cover.

The problem was centered at the National Reconnaissance Office's main ground receiving station at Ft. Belvoir, just south of Washington, officials said. The satellites themselves were functioning normally.

When the Pentagon initially reported the Y2K flaw, Hamre, the Pentagon's No. 2 official, said the blackout lasted "about two hours" and involved "one of our intelligence systems." At times during the briefing, he referred to the problem affecting "the satellite."

Hamre said he was reluctant to provide more than sketchy detail on the temporary blindness of the U.S. spy satellite system over the weekend because it might provide an opening to "bad guys" who would seek to take advantage of that vulnerability.

Although Hamre and other defense officials insisted that nothing critical was missed as a result of the spy satellite shutdown, there is no way to know for sure, because much of the garbled data cannot be recovered, according to knowledgeable officials.

The interruption in the flow of imagery intelligence stemmed from a flawed attempt to avert any Y2K problems in the computers that handle incoming satellite data, said a senior defense official.

A computer software "patch" installed by officials of the National Reconnaissance Office, which designs, launches and operates the spy satellites, failed to prevent an interruption of service with the arrival of midnight, Jan. 1, 2000, Greenwich Mean Time, or about 6 p.m. CST on New Year's Eve.

In news conferences on New Year's Day and again on Jan. 4, Hamre emphasized that the intelligence interruption affected "only one segment of our satellite-based capabilities."

The U.S. intelligence community maintains dozens of spy satellites, some engaged in intercepting foreign electronic communications. Others in much higher orbits can detect the heat plume emitted by rocket launches and provide early warning of possible enemy missile attacks.

But the five satellites affected are by far the most expensive intelligence platforms in space, costing more than $1.5 billion each to build and launch, according to unofficial estimates. The actual costs are classified.

The three electro-optical satellites, which take pictures, digitize the image and send the data to Earth, are on a level of sophistication similar to that of the Hubble Space Telescope, the difference being that instead of pointing out into space, they point down to Earth. In ideal weather and lighting, the spy satellites can distinguish objects smaller than one foot in size.

Launched in the 1990s, these bus-sized satellites, called Advanced KH-11s, are so secret that the U.S. government does not acknowledge even how many are in space. Close followers of intelligence have been able to discern the number of satellites and their orbit by combining known information about classified launches with sightings of orbiting platforms by telescopes on Earth.

Known as Lacrosse, the two radar imagery satellites cost about $1 billion each. The two now in orbit were launched in 1991 and 1997, according to Jeffrey Richelson, author of several books on the U.S. intelligence community.

Spy satellite imagery can be used in a number of ways. During wartime, spy satellites serve an immediate function, providing early warning against threats and targeting information to battle planners. In peacetime, the images can be used to determine if nations are violating arms-control agreements. Even pictures of empty fields or forests can, in time, be useful if later pictures of the same spot show that an adversary is building a major military installation.

Recently the U.S. intelligence community has been focusing on a missile-launch facility in North Korea, a country that has made development of longer-range missiles a priority and which is considered a potential threat to the U.S. and its allies.

Richelson said that losing a large volume of imagery intelligence may not be as significant as it seems, because the U.S. intelligence community routinely generates far more images from its spy satellites than it has time or manpower to analyze.

"You may have lost all that data, but a lot of it may have been stuff you never would have looked at anyway," Richelson said.

John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based group that closely follows intelligence matters, credited Hamre with acknowledging the intelligence interruption at all.

But, he said, "Their claim that this outage did not seriously impact national security was overly optimistic and understated the level of the problem."

Pike said the spy satellite system was "seriously shut down for the weekend" and that had a national security crisis developed, "it could have been actively problematic as opposed to noticeably annoying

-- Martin Thompson (, January 13, 2000


If all the terrorists really did go on a binge, but there was no surveillance available to detect their atrocities, does that mean that in our "television-fed" reality (so recently touted here)nothing has happened? I kinda like that! I'm not looking!! Nothing is happening!!Not gonna look! Not gonna look!!

-- Jay Urban (, January 13, 2000.

It would have been criminally stupid to tell the world what was going on. "Right to know" is not a suicide pact.

-- Tom Carey (, January 13, 2000.

This incident is extraordinarily significant. Not only does NRO have a billion (plus) dollar, black budget to acquire the most advanced and cutting-edge technology in the world, but also it has the means to recruit the best and the brightest. Even the Air Force personnel assigned to these various ground stations are the cream of the crop, constantly educated to hone their respective expertise. Any endeavor in the US/intelligence world is constantly checked and rechecked in the most minute detail. (Ref: book, Deep Black, published about ten years ago)

The fact that the incident was reported and then described has to do with current law: a security breach of this nature must be reported to Congress. Perhaps they were afraid it would be leaked, therefore, the pre-emptive reporting would then be necessary.

Think on this. Then, consider what else is being hidden.

-- Aunt PittyPat (, January 13, 2000.

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