Archive for Wednesday, September 15, 1999


September 15, 1999


A recent book by two Chinese military planners called "Unrestricted War" acknowledges that it would be foolhardy for China to attack the United States because of America's superior military strength. But in a twist worthy of a Tom Clancy novel, the book goes on to assert that China could wage war against a powerful adversary through other means, including cutting off computers and propagating computer viruses. The authors argue that a war that takes nonmilitary forms and strikes at the heart of a modern country's vulnerability is "the war of the future."

Alarmed by the book's blunt talk, and its highly placed authors, government planners working on the Y2K problem now assume that a possible attack on U.S. computers by China is not just the stuff of fiction, but one of the scenarios they must prepare for.

Separating the real from the surreal is the challenge facing the political odd couple overseeing the Senate Year 2000 Committee on Capitol Hill. Utah Republican Bob Bennett and Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd are at opposite ends of the spectrum politically, but they agree that malevolent intervention from abroad under the cover of Y2K threatens U.S. economic and national security.

The heightened threat includes industrial espionage, made easier by Y2K, and a new breed of "tech-terrorists" that seeks to disable enemies by cutting off the computers that serve a modern society's basic needs.

The United States has made great strides to become Y2K compliant, but other counties are far behind where they need to be. According to the Senate committee, the countries that pose the greatest danger to their populations, and to world stability, are China, Japan, Russia and Italy. The Russians are so nervous about the possibility of errant missiles being fired that they will soon announce their participation in a new nuclear tracking site in Colorado Springs called the Center for Y2K Stability.

Within our own borders, the health-care industry is the most ill-prepared for the millennial change. On any given day, there are 3.8 million patients in U.S. hospitals, and another 20 million people treated on an outpatient basis. All depend on computer technology for everything from billing to life-saving medical devices. Yet many companies refuse to declare themselves Y2K compliant for fear that any shortcoming would then invite lawsuits. Congress passed legislation limiting legal liability, but a Y2K lapse that resulted in death or serious injury would still end up in court.

Adding to the anxiety, manufacturers of some medical devices warn that products made for the millennium should not be tested before Jan. 1. Insurance companies have begun rewriting policies to exclude equipment tested beforehand from being covered. This sounds bizarre, but a Senate aide explains that a typical hospital has 6,000 to 8,000 pieces of technical equipment that are complicated to test and hard to re-boot. Cost-strapped teaching hospitals don't have the time or the money to run the tests, even if manufacturers encouraged them.

The bumpy ride into 2000 will get bumpier if ordinary citizens overreact. Dodd recalls the panic that swept the country after Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast "War of the Worlds" convinced people that aliens were landing in New Jersey. There are Web sites now, says Bennett, "that would make Orson Welles jealous if he were still with us." One Web conspiracy theory accuses President Clinton of inventing the Y2K crisis as an excuse to impose martial law and delay the 2000 presidential election. That way, Clinton remains in office. "It's nonsense," says Bennett. But would the senator fly in a plane on Jan. 1? Only in the United States, Bennett said. So who's panicking?

-- Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohn are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.

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