Clinton administration officials launched a Y2K blitz yesterday, offering a message that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson neatly summarized as, "Stay cool, don't panic."
Richardson spoke at a Potomac Electric Power Co. control center in Montgomery County, where he said the nation's electric and gas utilities have made the repairs to avoid any computer disruptions at the start of the new year.
"We'll be ready to celebrate with the lights on," he said.
At the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre declared, "We're ready." In case anyone doubted how seriously the Defense Department views vanquishing the so-called millennium bug, he said, "This isn't a computer geek issue; this is a war-fighting issue."
Over the last month, the White House has quietly encouraged officials to get out and talk about how agencies fixed their computer systems and remind the public that federal officials will be on duty during the holiday weekend to guard against any Y2K glitches. The administration hopes the drumbeat will prove reassuring to Americans in the closing weeks of 1999.
Two years ago, computer experts and some members of Congress doubted that some large government agencies, such as the Defense Department, would be able to sift through millions of lines of codes and make the fixes before Jan. 1. But virtually all agencies repaired the bulk of their systems before autumn.
"I think it was nearly miraculous," Hamre said of the Pentagon's effort. Only 18 months ago, he said, 25 percent of Defense Department systems were Y2K-ready, but yesterday only two minor intelligence systems awaited fixes.
The Pentagon spent $3.6 billion to fix 2,101 "mission critical" systems and several thousand "non-mission critical" computers, and to test for hidden or overlooked problems. The systems included global communication networks, nuclear weapons systems, battlefield command systems, hospital equipment and payroll.
Hamre said he would probably be at the Pentagon at midnight on New Year's Eve but he discouraged most staff members from coming in.
"The one thing I don't want to create is a story with 500 cars in the parking lot at the Pentagon, and then you all report that the Pentagon is worried and working overtime. We're not worried," he said.
Richardson and James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged the public to approach New Year's weekend as they would a three-day winter storm, just in case some local areas suffer electronic disruptions.
"Have enough food and supplies, have enough fresh batteries and flashlights and clothing. And then stay cool," Richardson said.
The Year 2000 computer problem, known as Y2K, stems from the use of two-digit dates in many older systems. Those systems might misinterpret '00' as 1900, not 2000, and could malfunction or shut down.
Despite efforts to fix the systems, administration officials cautioned that they cannot guarantee that all computers will work on Jan. 1. The White House has set up a command center, which will start operating at year's end, to watch for any Y2K problems.
Yesterday, Clinton's chief Y2K adviser, John A. Koskinen, announced the creation of a new industry group that will join the federal monitoring effort. The group, called the Y2K Cyber Assurance National Information Center, will be on guard to protect the Internet from Year 2000 glitches, computer hackers and viruses.
The Justice Department also plans to operate a Y2K command center during the holiday weekend. Special teams will be on alert to spot any terrorists attempting to take advantage of Y2K and to monitor major electronic systems for signs of cyber-attacks.
"The world as we know it is not going to end," Koskinen said. "But on the other hand, there are certainly going to be some glitches. This is a unique problem. Everybody as a minimum should be prepared for a long winter weekend."