Clinton speaks out on Y2K

President Clinton, speaking publicly about the Year 2000 problem for the first time, drew praise from even some of his harshest critics last week after laying out his administration's work on fixing the government's computer systems for the millennium date change.

However, those same critics said they will wait to see how fast, if at all, Clinton's goals will trickle down to government agencies such as the Defense Department, which the Office of Management and Budget has reported as one of six agencies that are far behind in reprogramming and replacing computers that are not Year 2000-compliant.

Clinton, speaking at a briefing on the Year 2000 problem at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., said the government would have its systems ready by Jan. 1, 2000, and supported OMB's March 1999 deadline for all federal mission-critical systems to be fixed, tested and installed. "I have made it clear to every member of my Cabinet that the American people have a right to expect uninterrupted service from government, and I expect them to deliver," Clinton said.

In its latest report released in May, OMB placed DOD and the departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Transportation and the Agency for International Development on a list of agencies that have not shown sufficient progress in fixing their systems so that the agencies could meet the March 1999 deadline.

"We're not just talking about computers, but billions of imbedded chips built into everyday products,'' Clinton said. "It will take a lot of time to rewrite lines of computer code in existing systems, to buy new ones or put in place backup plans so that essential business and government services are not interrupted.''

A day after Clinton's announcement, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), speaking about the Year 2000 problem at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, applauded Clinton's speech.

"The president gave a superb speech on a very serious problem,'' said Bennett, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. "We have needed this kind of national attention for a long time."After praising the president, Bennett painted a graphic picture of what could happen if computers do not comply by 2000. "I think water systems will break down in some communities,'' he said. "I think some banks and credit unions will go bankrupt. What's going to happen in counties if welfare checks aren't delivered? Riots could be started."

Clinton also detailed an effort begun this spring by the Office of Personnel Management to attract former military and civilian computer programmers to return to the government to fix the software date code in legacy systems. He also mentioned that the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion has started to promote partnerships between industry groups and government agencies, with the goal of sharing information on what works.

In addition, Clinton said the White House will soon introduce "Good Samaritan" legislation that will encourage small businesses to share their resources on upgrading their computer systems for Year 2000 without risking liability, and will provide $12 million to support the World Bank Year 2000 fund for developing countries.

Jim Kerrigan, president of Colmar, a marketing research firm in Reston, Va., praised Clinton's goals. But he said it is up to managers at agencies to fulfill them.

"It all depends on the follow up of the agency's program manager,'' Kerrigan said. "Before Clinton's announcement, what government did about Y2K was cosmetic. Now that the president has spoken, maybe they will take it seriously. The ball has been in their hands because they have the money."

Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), a harsh critic of agencies' progress in making Year 2000 fixes, said he hopes the president continues to talk about Year 2000 when he is traveling. Horn said he felt optimistic after hearing Clinton acknowledge the Year 2000 problem.

"Maybe the denial period is over,'' Horn said. "Now when he's in a different part of the world, he may mention Y2K and keep up the pace. We need to know that they are serious.''

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, commended Clinton on his conversion plans.

"We welcome the president's remarks and see them as a sign that this administration is ready to engage on this difficult situation,'' Miller said. "Only through recognizing Y2K as a common challenge and a shared responsibility can we hope to find satisfactory solutions."

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