Advertisement

Y2K glitch hobbled top secret spy sats

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- A Y2K glitch that hobbled an intelligence system was a far more serious and wide-ranging problem than the Pentagon initially admitted to; worse, it was self-inflicted -- caused by a software patch intended to avert any date-related problems in the vital spy system that failed to work, Defense Department officials told United Press International.

"The patch was an attempt to not have a problem - in this case, it gave us one," said one official.

Advertisement

The problem occurred in a sensitive intelligence program known as "Talent Keyhole" - a reference to the type of security clearance needed to access the data and imagery produced by the system.

The trouble was not in the satellites in space, but in an imagery processing ground station at the Army's Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

The ground station is owned by the National Reconnaissance Office, which produces vast quantities of data and imagery for the Defense Department and the CIA.

NRO knew the processing system would have problems when the year 2000 dawned at midnight Greenwich Mean Time, so it put in place a "patch" - a temporary software band-aid to help it make the transition to the new millennium.

Advertisement

But it was this faulty patch that crashed the system shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Dec. 31, according to Defense Department officials - despite the fact that in prior laboratory testing it had worked perfectly.

Three of the affected satellites were KH-11 models - satellite numbers 2104, 2105 and 2106 -- owned by the National Reconnaissance Office.

They are "sun synchronous" satellites, orbiting the Earth roughly around the polar ice caps and snapping detailed digital photos of strategic "hot spots" at regular intervals, said Jeffrey Richelson, satellite expert and author of "Americas Secret Eyes in Space."

They also carry imaging infrared cameras that can take pictures at night.

But these were not the only satellites rendered useless by the balky ground station: Two radar imaging satellites, part of the 6100 series, also were feeding their data into the faulty imagery processing system. These take pictures either day or night by bouncing radio signals off targets.

The result was three hours of total blindness, and then two days with just a trickle of the vast flow of pictures normally produced by five satellites available only to the president, CIA and Pentagon.

Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre announced the problem on Jan. 1 but refused to reveal details about the number of satellites involved.

Advertisement

"I'm not going to get into the configuration issues associated with this asset," Hamre said at a Jan. 4 news conference.

It was the only serious military consequence of the year 2000 rollover, for which the Pentagon prepared at a cost of $3.6 billion.

Hamre, who first got word of the trouble during a low-key New Year's Eve celebration with a skeleton crew of Pentagon staff and reporters, characterized the problem from the start as "significant."

He said at a news conference the next day that the consequences of this glitch were minimal because intelligence analysts were able to manually process just enough data from the satellites to be confident until the full system came back on line at 11:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Jan. 2.

It was a time-consuming and tedious process, according to one intelligence officer close to the issue.

But the Pentagon also had a stroke of good luck: Fears that terrorists or rogue states might use New Year's Eve as an opportunity to launch a strike did not materialize and the intelligence system, therefore, was not taxed.

"We had very, very little operational loss," Hamre said Jan. 4.

Privately, officials translate this to mean that they were able to focus on the small number of targets that were important and leave the rest uncovered without suffering any consequences.

Advertisement

"We didn't necessarily need it," said one senior military official on hand that evening at Fort Belvoir of the reams of images normally yielded from this system.

It was a classic case of "all's well that end's well," he said.

Hamre explained Jan. 4 that he did not reveal more at the time because of fears it could compromise national security. If those rogue states or groups normally under nearly constant surveillance knew the satellites were technically blind, they might take advantage of it.

"I don't personally believe I owe an explanation for not telling people forthrightly we had a problem with a reconnaissance system. I don't think I would have told you that at the time until I knew I had a fix.

"I honestly think - forgive me for being disrespectful -- but if it's trying to respect your right to file a story and my responsibility to protect the country, I'm going to protect the country," he told reporters.

That no terrorist organizations or pariah states used the century change as a backdrop to take action certainly diminished the consequences the processor's failure might have had, Richelson said.

"If it was happening frequently or for a long period of time, or if other countries knew about it and it was going to last for a few days, that would be a problem," Richelson said. Otherwise, "it's not that big a deal," he said. "You just don't want those kinds of occurrences."

Advertisement

Latest Headlines

Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us

Advertisement