Businesses eye Y2k effort for terrorism fight

In preparing for the feared Y2k computer glitch in the late 1990s, the U.S. government appointed a czar to organize critical industries to combat the problem. Businesses and government worked closely together across sectors and established a command center for information to help businesses deal with the problem.

A few months into 2000, after predicted widespread problems failed to materialize, the effort was dismantled.

Now, a push is on to re-create the operation, or one similar to it, to help the nation fight terrorist threats. Michael Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council in Princeton, New Jersey, has been meeting with other utility CEOs to test interest in the idea, said spokeswoman Ellen Vancko. “I think everybody believes that it worked well at the end,” she said.

Harris Miller, head of the Information Technology Association of America here, said the Y2k network should never have been shut down in the first place.

“That was a decision made by the outgoing administration over our strong objections,” said Miller.

To meet the challenges posed by the Y2k problem at the time, the Clinton administration created a set of working partnerships with a host of critical infrastructure industries: electric power, oil and gas, telecommunications, transportation, finance, health care and pharmaceuticals.

The groups shared information about how to solve any Y2k problems that might arise, coordinated contingency plans and conducted exercises to test those contingency plans, said John Koskinen, the former head of the White House Y2k effort and now city administrator in Washington, D.C.

“The only way we got to the point where Y2k became an afterthought was through the network we created,” said Koskinen.

Unlike the Y2k phenomenon, today’s terrorist threat to IT is undefined, the response is difficult and there is no known time frame. That, said Koskinen, makes it even more imperative that an ad hoc organization be created as soon as possible.

“I don’t think there is any way to deal with determining the nature of the threat, protecting against it and having appropriate mechanisms in place without an effective renewal of those partnerships or networks across the economy,” said Koskinen.

Koskinen believes it will be up to the White House, but particularly the new head of the Office of Homeland Security, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, to decide whether to reform the network. Ridge takes over his new duties next week.