U.S.: spy satellite off-line for 12 hours

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Headline: 12-hour glitch on spy satellite causes intelligence gap

Source: The Washington Times, 26 July 2001

[it would be nice to see this story confirmed in another source...]

URL: http://washingtontimes.com/national/20010726-76644483.htm

The National Reconnaissance Office lost contact with a U.S. spy satellite last week, causing a major gap in intelligence monitoring of world hot spots, The Washington Times has learned

The satellite stopped functioning for some 12 hours, according to U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It was described by officials as a "Series 3100" radar-imaging satellite, also known as Lacrosse. It uses radar pulses to generate images of the ground that can be produced through clouds and at night.

Spy satellite photographs have provided some of the U.S. government's most important intelligence. They detected Russia's movement of nuclear weapons to the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad last year.

Satellite intelligence also detected recent nuclear weapons experiments at a test facility in northwestern China. Satellites also are monitoring China's buildup of short-range missiles opposite Taiwan.

Rick Oborn, a spokesman for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), declined to comment on the satellite malfunction, citing a policy of not discussing specific satellite operations.

However, Mr. Oborn said from time to time satellites "are programmed to go into safe mode."

"If a burp happens in the computer or what have you, they are basically designed to protect themselves" by temporarily shutting down, Mr. Oborn said.

As for the lack of world coverage, Mr. Oborn said that "if something goes down, that doesn't mean there isn't coverage."

An administration official said Congress' intelligence oversight committees were informed of the satellite problem under rules requiring reporting of significant intelligence activities.

Other intelligence officials said the satellite is one of a small number of the U.S. intelligence community's most technologically advanced satellites.

During the outage, intelligence agencies were unable to obtain photographs of such places as Russia, where missile fields are constantly monitored, and the Balkans, where U.S. and allied peacekeepers are increasingly coming under fire from guerrillas.

The satellite malfunction also hampered efforts to monitor China and military developments there, which officials said is a key priority.

The satellite was said to be functioning normally after the glitch was fixed. Some NRO satellites perform dual functions, both creating images and collecting electronic signals. It could not be learned if the satellite malfunction limited signals-intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Contrary to its stated policy of not commenting on satellite operations, the Pentagon announced in January 2000 that a New Year's Eve computer glitch had temporarily "blinded" NRO's global satellite spy network.

The year-2000 incident prevented the agency from processing information sent from the satellites to ground stations. It was the U.S. government's only reported computer failure resulting from digital crossover from 1999 to 2000.

John Hamre, the deputy defense secretary at the time, said the January 2000 failure caused a "significant" reduction in the Pentagon's ability to monitor world events.

The temporary loss of a radar-imaging satellite comes amid criticism of the NRO for mishandling funds. U.S. officials said a recent internal audit at the office had uncovered what were described as "funding abuses."

John Pike, a specialist on intelligence satellites with the private group Global Security.org, said losing contact with military satellites is not unprecedented but could have left important intelligence targets on the ground unmonitored.

"The whole purpose of these radar-imaging satellites is to give [U.S. intelligence agencies] 24/7 coverage and to lose that for 12 hours would obviously make them nervous," Mr. Pike said.

The U.S. intelligence community developed radar-imaging satellites specifically to close gaps in space surveillance and reconnaissance caused by darkness and cloud cover, Mr. Pike said in an interview.

Mr. Pike said the NRO has at least two radar-imaging satellites deployed, along with other photographic and signals-gathering satellites.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), July 26, 2001

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