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1998-05-19 06:42:14


Steve Forbes Sends a Warning to Congress: Y2K Disaster



Steve Forbes has become the first major national figure to send a warning to Congress regarding the Year 2000 Problem.

The irony here is that his magazine, FORBES, is engaged in writing hatchet jobs on those of us who have warned against y2k. One was called Merchants of Fear. The other was an attack on me, Joel Skousen, and others who are afraid of the social consequences of y2k. The paid hirelings are busy exposing y2k as the mania of dolts (of whom I am chief), while the Chairman of FORBES, Caspar Weinberger, and the publisher of FORBES, Steve Forbes, are placing their reputations on the line by issuing warnings on y2k. Are they merchants of fear? Of course not. They're, uh, well, uh, public-spirited men who pay the salaries of their minions. The minions at FORBES will eventually wake up, but this obviously takes time.

I warned that Steve Forbes would become a capitalist fool, not a capitalist tool, if he maintained the position of his hirelings. He has now broken with his writers.

His warning drew a sharp response from John Koskinen, the lawyer hired by Clinton to cover up the y2k problem with layers of committees and happy-face press releases. He called Forbes' statement "partisan." This is the politicians' favorite word for "blaming us, because we are in power, when we're trying to shift the blame to no one in particular."

This was written by the Center for Security Policy (May 16).

* * * * * * * *

(Washington, D.C.): On Friday, Steve Forbes sent a forceful two-page memorandum to Members of Congress and conservative leaders warning of the dangers of the Year 2000 (Y2K) computer crisis. Mr. Forbes' memo -- issued by his public policy group, Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity -- is noteworthy not only for its being the first expression of dire concern about this issue from a national political figure. No less striking was the harsh response it received yesterday from the Clinton Administration's Y2K point man, John Koskinen.

Forbes' Call to Arms

Mr. Forbes memo comes just eleven days after he delivered a major address on American foreign and defense policy as the keynote of a Symposium held in New York by the William J. Casey Institute of the Center for Security Policy. Highlights of the latest, signal contribution by this once-and-perhaps-future presidential candidate to the policy debate about U.S. economic and national security included the following (emphasis added throughout):

"The Year 2000 (Y2K) computer crisis is now upon us and the federal government is even more woefully unprepared than the rest of society. The implications are ominous. Medicare, the IRS, the Federal Aviation Administration and other basic agencies are operating on utterly out-of-date technology. It doesn't take much imagination to see how dreadfully wrong things could go." . . .

"'There is very little realization that there will be a disruption,' Sherry Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency's office studying the Year 2000 problem, told Reuters. 'As you start getting out into the population, I think most people are again assuming that things are going to operate the way they always have. That is not going to be the case.'" . . .

"The federal government's Y2K compliance efforts recently received a 'D-minus' grade by the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, chaired by Representative Steve Horn of California." . . .

"Distracted by scandals and side-tracked by questionable crises like global warming, the Clinton-Gore Administration is failing to insure that vital government computers will be fixed in time. Nor are they impressing the American public and foreign governments with the urgency of this crisis. Why such silence? Are they trying to limit public concern until after the mid-term elections? The stakes are too high for such partisan political games."

"With the Clinton-Gore Administration AWOL, Congress must urgently fill this leadership vacuum. Increase defense funding to speed up compliance. Create Y2K compliance penalties and incentives for key federal agencies. Require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which itself received a 'D-minus' grade for Y2K compliance) to develop contingency plans for major disruptions in vital services. Move fast. Time is short."

Koskinen's Response

As it happened, Friday was also the occasion for a luncheon address by Mr. Koskinen -- a former OMB official appointed last February to become chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion (the so-called Y2K "Czar")(2) -- sponsored by the Washington Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA). Czar Koskinen's remarks largely validated Mr. Forbes' critique: They were long on upbeat assessments of all that is being done to deal with the "problem" and very short on evidence that there will, as a result of the Millennium Bug, shortly be serious disruptions in both critical federal government functions or private sector activities upon which public health, safety and economic viability depend.

This performance, with its "whistling past the graveyard" tenor, stands in stark contrast to the specific indicators of looming disaster cited in the Forbes memo. These include:

"Only 63% of the 7,850 federal computer systems deemed 'mission critical' -- that is, vital to protecting U.S. national security, health, safety, education, transportation, and financial and emergency management -- will be ready on 1 January 2000."

"Five Cabinet-level departments (Defense, Education, Transportation, Labor and State) received 'F' grades. Only 24% of Defense's mission-critical systems have been fixed to date. Only 36% are expected to by fixed by 1 January 2000. At this rate, Defense's mission-critical systems won't be completely fixed until 2009."

"'The impact of [Year 2000 computer] failures could be widespread, costly, and potentially disruptive to military operations worldwide,' concluded a chilling April 1998 General Accounting Office report. . . .

"Serious problems face the private sector, too. According to March surveys by the Information Technology Association of America and The Y2K Group:

94% of information technology managers see the Y2K computer issue as a 'crisis';

44% of American companies have already experienced Y2K computer problems;

83% of U.S. Y2K transition project managers expect the Dow Jones Industrial Average to fall by at least 20% as the crisis begins to unfold."

Awfully Late in the Game for 'Outreach'

Remarking that there were only 595 days left before 1 January 2000,(3) the "Czar" employed the euphemism "outreach" to describe his principal focus at the moment. By this term, he evidently means an effort to educate the public and private sectors about the implications of the Y2K syndrome and the need to take corrective action -- without unduly alarming his audiences. He emphasized that he saw such outreach as best being accomplished by working with the federal agencies and through them, with their suppliers, contacts and relevant interest groups.

This "outreach" (or "prosletyzing") phase would be, in Mr. Koskinen's words, followed by three others: "monitoring," "reviewing contingencies" and "crisis management." . . .

Interestingly, of the "outreach" measures Koskinen mentioned, the one that conveyed the greatest sense of urgency about the Y2K problem was a visit he recently made to bond-rating agencies in New York. He remarked that, "If I can't get bond issuers' attention [concerning the Millennium Bug] through other means, I probably can do so by threatening to lower their ratings."

As evidence of the seriousness with which the Clinton Administration takes his portfolio, Mr. Koskinen recalled a remark made by Vice President Gore at a Cabinet meeting in January 1998 at which the President and Mr. Gore impressed upon those present that they must regard Y2K as "their problem." He quoted the Veep as saying: "One of you will be the poster child for failed federal systems. Which one will it be?"

Shifting the Blame from Clinton-Gore

After Koskinen completed his remarks, he took a question from the Center for Security Policy's director, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. Noting the emphasis placed on outreach by the "Czar," Mr. Gaffney asked why it was that no use had been made to date of the most obvious and far-and-away most effective mechanism available to the Administration for raising public consciousness about the Y2K crisis -- namely, the two people absolutely certain to be the "poster children" for the coming debacle, Bill Clinton and Al Gore? Mr. Gaffney called Mr. Koskinen's attention to the Forbes memo and its speculation that perhaps the reason for such top-level silence on the issue (outside of closed-door Cabinet meetings and presidential councils) may be a deliberate decision to wait until after the 1998 mid-term elections. Should that be the case, the Center's director observed that six irrecoverable months could be wasted before the "bully pulpit" was used as it should be to raise a urgent alarm with the American people.

Mr. Koskinen's response was most illuminating. He said that he had seen the Forbes memo and decried its author as "the first person to try to make a partisan issue out of the Y2K problem."

The "Czar" actually went so far as to decry Mr. Forbes' memorandum as "explicitly partisan" -- a rather remarkable misrepresentation since, as noted above, the memo actually expressly states that "The stakes are too high for such partisan political games" as "trying to limit public concern until after the mid-term elections."

Perhaps inadvertently, however, Mr. Koskinen answer may have disclosed the Clinton-Gore game-plan for limiting the political damage likely to be inflicted by the Y2K debacle: Try to fob off onto the Congress at least some of the responsibility for the coming crisis -- and obscure the Administration's "leadership vacuum" that has, over the past five-and-a-half years of this presidency, resulted in the adoption of few of the steps needed to avert this most-accurately-forecast disaster. As the "Czar" put it: In contrast to Mr. Forbes, "the congressional leadership understands that we are all in this thing together." He asserted that "the American people will not make a distinction between the executive and legislative branches" in assigning responsibility for failures to deal with the coming crisis.

The Bottom Line

One thing is sure: All other things being equal, John Koskinen will be proven right. If the Congress fails to heed Steve Forbes' call for it to fill the "leadership vacuum" on the Y2K crisis, it will appear equally culpable for the inaction that will bring great grief starting in early 1999. Since -- in the absence of executive branch action -- the legislature can only do so much to arouse the Nation and prepare for deadly contingencies, it behooves the Republican-led Congress to do what it can. At the same time, it must demand that the Clinton Administration do its part now to limit the Y2K-related damage, while holding it (and particularly, its self-designated point-man on computer issues, Al Gore) fully responsible for the failure to do so before now.


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