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Computer glitch blinded US spy satellites

US 'lucky no major crises cropped up'

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The US government's spy satellite network suffered a prolonged computer breakdown last year which rendered it useless, the New York Times reports. The computer stuff-up 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 Y2K-related problems reported earlier, the paper said. It came as the mapping agency was installing a new system. US intelligence agencies went blind for several days, as the Mapping Agency was unable to disseminate the spy-satellite data needed for numerous intelligence operations. "This was a catastrophic systems failure," the Times quoted one senior official as saying. "We were really lucky that there weren't any major crises going on at the time." After months of work, many of the bugs have been worked out, though some officials complain that the system is still not working quite as it should. American taxpayers will no doubt be interested to learn that repeated cost overruns at the Mapping Agency have already prompted Congress to cap its bloated, but classified, budget. This move seems not to have engendered much in the way of efficiency; perhaps a bit more 'tough love' is in order. During the blackout, US spy satellites continued taking photographs, but the Mapping Agency was unable to distribute the data over its classified network, and had to rely on stopgap measures such as describing photographs over the telephone or sending couriers to deliver them. Mapping Agency databases containing archived photographs also failed, making it impossible for analysts to compare new pictures with old, and thus making it difficult for them to judge the growth of military and other threats. "If we had had multiple hot spots flare up all at once, I don't think we could have handled it," one senior intelligence official told the Times. "We were not quite blind, but we were way short for at least a few days." National Imagery and Mapping Agency acting Chief of Public Affairs Laura Snow told the Times that the Agency could not comment on the malfunction. "We can't go into details of the system because of security issues," Snow said. Convenient, isn't it? Being a secret agency means never having to say you're incompetent. ®

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