Rarely does the federal bureaucracy spring into action for a more critical mission than the one it undertakes around this time of year: tracking Santa Claus.

That's right. When the portly present producer plops his considerable girth behind the reins of his sleigh and giddyups his reindeer into action on Christmas Eve, Uncle Sam will be watching--with state-of-the-art radar and satellite technology and the power of the Internet.

As Santa soars into the night sky and begins his trek around the globe to bestow Pokemon toys and other goodies to the nice (and, presumably, C-SPAN tapes of old congressional hearings to the naughty), interested observers of all ages will be able to track his progress on the World Wide Web at a site (www.noradsanta.org) maintained by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) with an assist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NORAD has been in the business of Santa-tracking for 45 years, said Canadian Forces Maj. Jamie Robertson, who explained the history of the holiday program from his post at agency headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. (NORAD is a joint U.S.-Canada command.)

In 1955, according to Robertson, a Colorado Springs newspaper carried an ad for a department store featuring the phone number for a Santa Hotline that kids could call to plead for presents. Trouble was, the number was a misprint and actually led directly to the NORAD operations hotline.

All that Christmas, NORAD got calls from youngsters wanting to speak to Santa. Instead of explaining the mistake over and over to kids who had absolutely no idea what a NORAD was, staffers told the youthful callers that they would check the radar images and alert them to Santa's whereabouts. A tradition was born.

Kids can still call directly to NORAD (719-474-3980, with parental permission, of course) to get a phone update and ask questions about Santa, but anyone with a computer and a modem can now log on to get up to speed on the Jolly One's movements beginning at midnight Dec. 23 and continuing until 5 a.m. on Dec. 25.

The government's Santa watch has grown so popular--the site had 80 million hits last year--that NORAD now has several partners helping to make the tracking possible, including IBM, which will use the same servers it employed for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. The site will be offered in six different languages.

NORAD also will get some help this year from astronaut Sally Ride in answering questions and analyzing the Santa tracking data.

All of the Santa-trackers working the hotline at Colorado Springs are volunteers and no taxpayer funds are being used to create or maintain the Santa site, according to Robertson.

NOAA got involved this year, he said, because its Satellite Command and Data Acquisition Station in Fairbanks, Alaska, is uniquely positioned to monitor any unusual North Pole activity, which will be posted immediately on the site.

The tracking duties may even expand to other areas of the federal government this year. "Now that the space shuttle is going to be up there for Christmas," Robertson said, "maybe we'll ask NASA to pass along some data."

CAPTION: NORAD has a World Wide Web site where Santa's movements can be tracked from midnight Dec. 23 to 5 a.m. Dec. 25. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and companies such as IBM are helping with the Internet site.