D.C. - Pentagon's computer system for spy satellites still not working as it should

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(Italics mine)


April 12, 2000, By JAMES RISEN, NY Times


WASHINGTON, April 11 -- The United States government's ability to keep track of looming international threats was drastically curtailed last year because of a prolonged computer breakdown at the Pentagon agency that collects and analyzes photographs from spy satellites, several federal intelligence officials said.

The computer malfunction was so bad in August that United States intelligence agencies were left nearly blind for a few days, unable to rely on photographs from any spy satellites for use in a wide range of intelligence operations, officials added.

"This was a catastrophic systems failure," one senior official said.

"We were really lucky that there weren't any major crises going on at the time."

The computer crisis, at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, began in early August and continued for about a month, and was far more serious than the brief, previously disclosed Year 2000-related problems in intelligence systems that occurred over the New Year's holiday, officials said. It came as the mapping agency was installing a new system, which caused the breakdown. Some critics have said the new system may have been inadequately tested.

After months of work, the problem has largely been solved, although some officials said the system still did not work as it should.

The malfunction was seen as a serious problem within the government because spy satellites are among the most important national security tools available to the United States. They provide the president and his advisers prized information through high-resolution images on every national security issue, including Chinese naval deployment and Iraq's rebuilding of its chemical weapons plants.

For several weeks, the nation's fleet of spy satellites continued to take pictures, but the computer malfunction prevented the mapping agency from quickly distributing photographs from them over a classified network to Clinton administration policy makers, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon, officials said.

With its sophisticated hardware malfunctioning, the government had to rely on low-tech solutions. Analysts at the mapping agency would look at the photographs on computer screens and describe them over the telephone to officials who needed the information. In other cases, the agency made printouts from its computer terminals and then had couriers deliver the photographs to policy makers at the White House and other government agencies.

But the computer databases that contained archives of older photographs at the mapping agency were also malfunctioning, robbing analysts of the ability to compare the few new images they were receiving with earlier pictures of the same buildings and installations. That made it extremely difficult for intelligence officials to develop strong analytical judgments about critical foreign policy issues facing the president.

The system was so badly limited that only imagery dealing with topics that posed short-term threats to the national security of the United States -- the North Korean nuclear weapons program, for example -- was processed quickly.

"If we had had multiple hot spots flare up all at once, I don't think we could have handled it," said one senior intelligence official. "We were not quite blind, but we were way short for at least a few days."

Analysts working on longer-term issues -- narcotics production and trafficking, for example -- were forced to endure much longer delays in their requests to obtain satellite photographs, officials said.

"There was a major dip in the volume of imagery," said one official. "If you were an analyst monitoring the development of narcotics crops, or you were watching a new military facility being constructed somewhere, you faced significant delays."

Senior government officials acknowledged that the prolonged breakdown represented a major technological challenge for the United States intelligence community.

The breakdown has intensified an internal debate over whether the government is prepared to handle a new generation of spy satellites to be deployed over the next decade, the single most expensive intelligence program in United States history.

Critics say the intelligence community is spending billions of dollars for the new fleet of high-tech spy satellites while largely ignoring how to process, analyze and distribute the flood of photos those satellites will send to Earth. Matching the new generation of satellites with the system of collecting and processing their photos "will be like lashing together a Mercedes and a Trabant," said one official, comparing the German luxury car to the economy compact produced by the former East Germany.

The price of the satellite program, dubbed the Future Imagery Architecture, quickly grew by 50 percent, prompting Congress to demand a cap on spending increases. Although the exact price of the program is classified, the cost overruns have raised concerns about whether there will be enough money to improve the systems on the ground to handle the data from the new satellites.

"The problem is that the Future Imagery Architecture program is being built without much consideration for the need to invest in infrastructure to support it," one official said.

Task forces made up of senior C.I.A. and mapping agency officials worked on the problem from August through December, first to rig ways to get imagery to policy makers and then to fix the computer malfunction itself. But problems at the mapping agency continued to flare for months, officials said.

"I don't think it is still really fixed," said one senior official.

Laura Snow, acting chief of public affairs for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, said agency officials would not comment on the malfunction.

"We can't go into details of the system because of security issues," Ms. Snow said.

The computer problems developed just as the agency was overhauling its main computer system and installing a new one, called the National Exploitation System, in time to deal with Year 2000 problems, officials said. But as soon as it was installed in early August, analysts found it impossible to transfer images to administration policy makers and other intelligence analysts.

"This was a massive information technology overhaul, and the lesson is that we in the intelligence community have to learn how to do that better," said one official.

"There is a question about whether N.I.M.A. has expertise to manage the technical challenge they are going to face in systems integration and acquisition and support of the new satellites," another official said.

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency has been at the center of debate since it was created in 1996, when spy satellite photo collection and analysis was transferred from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon at the urging of the former director of central intelligence, John M. Deutch. Critics in the intelligence community warned that the move was a mistake. They argued that with the Pentagon in control, the satellites would be used largely for tactical military issues, like determining how many tanks are in a certain region of Serbia, rather than intelligence issues with broad political implications.

-- Lee Maloney (leemaloney@hotmail.com), April 14, 2000

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