Foreign Nations Trail U.S.On Y2K Fixes, Expert Says
By Stephen Barr
Most foreign countries trail the United States in addressing potential Year 2000 computer problems, raising concerns that the "Y2K bug" could disrupt maritime shipping, air transportation, oil supplies and other sectors of world trade, a top government intelligence analyst said yesterday.
Lawrence K. Gershwin of the National Intelligence Council, a group of government and private-sector experts that reports to the CIA director, said Eastern Europe, Russia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and several Asian nations show little progress in resolving Y2K problems.
But Gershwin, the council's national intelligence officer for science and technology, declined to spell out what Y2K troubles abroad would mean for the U.S. economy and government.
"We cannot yet provide good answers or predictions that would be meaningful on the consequences," he said at a House hearing on Y2K readiness.
His testimony, though, provided the first public listing of Y2K trouble spots that worry the intelligence community as governments and companies mobilize to fix computer systems so they will continue operating on Jan. 1, 2000. Many computer systems use two-digit date fields and could read "00" as 1900 rather than 2000, possibly causing them to malfunction or shut down.
In particular, Russia and Ukraine seem especially vulnerable to the glitch, Gershwin indicated.
"The coincidence of widespread Y2K-related failures in the winter of 1999-2000 in Russia and Ukraine, with continuing economic problems, food shortages and already difficult conditions for the population, could have major humanitarian consequences for these countries," Gershwin said.
Russia is "likely to experience serious power outages" in the dead of winter and "some nuclear reactors may shut down," Gershwin said. These outmoded reactors already present some safety risks, which could be made worse by Y2K problems, he suggested.
Asked by Rep. Jim Turner (D-Tex.) if the reactors might present a Chernobyl-type threat in 2000, Gershwin said it was "premature to raise that flag."
In keeping with previous Defense Department assessments, Gershwin said Russian strategic missiles would not automatically launch because of a Y2K problem. Pentagon officials, however, fear that Russia may not have time to fix problems in early warning systems that monitor foreign missile launches, and they have been meeting with their Russian counterparts to find a solution.
Other regions and nations, Gershwin added, face Y2K risks:
* Western Europe. Most of its computer focus has been directed toward the euro monetary conversion, postponing work on Y2K remedies. There appears to be little cross-border cooperation and the Netherlands "has threatened to cut off its power grid from the rest of Europe in order to protect domestic power distribution from external problems," Gershwin said.
* Asia. Many nations have been distracted by the region's economic crisis, and Japanese and Chinese financial institutions will probably face Y2K problems. China's late start on computer fixes "suggests Beijing will fail to solve many of its Y2K problems in the limited time remaining, and will probably experience failures in key sectors such as telecommunications, electric power and banking," Gershwin said.
* Oil producers. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Nigeria, Angola and Gabon lag in Y2K repair efforts. Oil production remains largely in the hands of multinational corporations, but the industry appears exposed to potential Y2K problems because of its reliance on embedded microprocessors in oil drilling, pumping, processing and refining.
"We are concerned about the shipping of oil products, because ocean shipping and foreign ports have both been flagged as among the least prepared sectors," Gershwin said.
He testified at a hearing co-chaired by Reps. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) and Constance A. Morella (R-Md.). "I am concerned that any potential Y2K economic and social instability across the globe will ripple through to the United States," Morella said.
John A. Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, told Horn and Morella that the U.S. government has started working with a United Nations committee to set up an "international Y2K cooperation center" to deal with cross-border networks such as telecommunications and transportation.
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