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The New York Times
January 2, 2000


In One of Few Problems, Link to Spy Satellite Fails


WASHINGTON, Jan. 1    A computer failure caused by the arrival of the year 2000 cut communications with one of the nation's secret spy satellites for two to three hours on Friday night and continued to hobble its operations today, Pentagon officials said.

A computer system at a ground station of the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that runs the military's spy satellites, failed at 7 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, or midnight Greenwich Mean Time, the standard to which many military systems are synchronized.

The satellite continued to operate normally, but the disruption made it impossible to process the information it was transmitting back to earth, the officials said. No other satellites were affected.

Deputy Secretary of Defense John J. Hamre said at the Pentagon today that officials had been able to rely on "backup procedures" to resume processing the satellite's feed within two to three hours, but they could do so at "less than our full peacetime level of activity."

"It was only for a matter of a few hours when we were not able to process information," Dr. Hamre said. "We are now. And we'll be back to normal operations very soon."

Even so, he called the failure significant and said it was the most notable disruption attributed so far to the 2000 rollover, for which the Pentagon spent $3.6 billion to prepare. Despite fears of widespread problems, the nation's military reported only a few other minor disruptions as the new year arrived, including a power loss in the remote outpost of Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean.

Dr. Hamre and other officials would not say exactly where the computer problem occurred or disclose other details, such as what part of the globe was temporarily invisible to their eyes in space. Senior officials said that in an emergency they would be able to take surveillance photos by other means, such as U-2 spy planes.

The National Reconnaissance Office, based in Chantilly, Va., operates about two dozen intelligence satellites, including five that take photographs or radar images, eight that intercept communications and eight that monitor ocean traffic, said John E. Pike, a military and intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

Although the Pentagon refused to identify the satellite, one military official indicated that it was one that took images. Mr. Pike said the information broadcast by the five photographic or radar satellites was processed at Fort Belvoir, Va., an Army base near Washington.  

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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