WASHINGTON -- John Koskinen would have been a perfect choice to raise the Titanic. A professional crisis manager, he has overseen salvage operations for a failed railroad and large insurer, as well as the controversial Las Vegas real estate holdings of Chicago-based Teamsters union benefit funds.
But nothing compares to the 59-year-old's current job: overseeing the effort to keep much of the nation's technology from falling victim to the Year 2000 computer bug, a problem commonly known as Y2K.
In March, Koskinen assumed the new post of chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. The title may sound prestigious, but Koskinen has no real power to get Americans to take seriously a potential crisis that may be both pervasive and unpredictable, and time is running out: Just over 13 months remain.
The crisis stems from a shortcut taken by computer programmers years ago. To save computer storage space back when it was much more expensive, they used only two digits instead of four to represent a year.
That expediency means that much of the world's computer-based technology could misfire when Jan. 1, 2000, arrives. Not just software but millions of computer microchips embedded in machines and devices across the globe contain the glitch. What's worse, it's virtually impossible to know where all the affected chips are.
Everything from electrical and water utilities to transportation and telecommunications could go haywire if fixes aren't made. Some fear that billions of dollars in financial assets will disappear if certain computers mistake the year 2000 for 1900.
"The thing that worries me most is how people may have disruptions in their basic services either here or abroad," Koskinen said during an interview in his office in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House. "And those have the potential to be serious disruptions."
On his desk in the office where he routinely puts in 14-hour days is a constant reminder of his urgent task: a clock ticking down the number of days before 2000, a gift from Vice President Al Gore.
Koskinen, who joined the administration as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, stepped down from the post last year.
He was in the midst of a vacation trip with his wife through Morocco in January when an old OMB friend called at 2 a.m. to alert him that Clinton wanted him for the Y2K job.
When Koskinen got back to Washington, the president called him at home. The next day, Gore phoned. "If you get the pope to call, I might actually take this seriously." Koskinen recalls joking with Gore. All kidding aside, he took the job.
Sen. Robert F. Bennett, the Utah Republican who chairs the Senate's special committee on the Y2K problem and talks weekly with Koskinen, calls him "the right guy for this job. He recognizes that just getting the federal government in shape is not enough."
While Bennett thinks that Koskinen's the right guy for the job, he still wishes the title had gone to a real heavy-hitter.
"I would have preferred that the public czar mantle be put on a higher-profile individual," said Bennett, who liked the idea of giving the job to Gore.
But the White House thought the job needed to be full-time, and Clinton liked Koskinen's experience at handling emergencies under pressure.
A Yale Law School alumnus, Koskinen had long done that in the private sector, supervising turnarounds at large organizations that foundered, usually due to mismanagement.
Those included the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Transportation Co. and the failure of the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. In addition, there was his court-approved appointment to handle the controversial Western real estate of the once-notorious Teamsters Central States Health and Welfare and Pension Funds.
His role, from 1977 to 1985, forced him to testify at the 1982 Chicago trial of Teamsters President Roy Williams, Chicago businessman Allen Dorfman and reputed mob hit man Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo.
He was interrogated about a union lawyer's request that Koskinen give preference in one deal to the son-in-law of Howard Cannon, who at the time was a Democratic U.S. senator from Nevada. There was no suggestion of impropriety on Koskinen's part.
In his previous rescue operations, the damage had already occurred and seemed limited, unlike the Y2K problem from which disruptions are likely to ripple out, with foul-ups begetting more foul-ups.
Because so much is uncertain, Koskinen doesn't rule out the doomsday scenario for the Y2K glitch.
"The problem," he said "is that normally when people say the end is near, that you should flee to the hills of New Mexico, you can laugh and say the meteor is not going to hit the world."
But "in this particular case, you cannot say, 'No, no, no, that will never happen.' I mean, it is in fact possible, certainly if you stopped everybody's work today and nobody did anything else from now 'til the end of the next year."
Because the work to repair the defect is proceeding, Koskinen doesn't believe in the doomsday scenario. Still, it is impossible to adequately test many of the Y2K fixes now being made, so no one knows for sure what will and won't work.
Testing of systems so far has turned up some anomalies. For example, one California county learned that a glitch in the controls of its jail meant that come Jan. 1, 2000, the electronically controlled cell doors would default into an open position. When Ford Motor Co. advanced the clock at one of its factories to Jan. 1, 2000, it learned the Y2K defect would have just the opposite effect, locking people inside the factory, Koskinen said.
It's Koskinen's job to point out such problems without being alarmist. "We're on this balancing act to get people to pay attention without gratuitously having them panic," he said.
When it comes to the workings of the federal government, the country's biggest user of computer systems, Koskinen has more influence than he does with private industry. Clinton authorized Koskinen to do what was needed to assure that the government's computer systems were ready.
Some agencies, such as the Social Security and Veterans Affairs administrations, appear well on the way, giving Koskinen, who reports directly to Clinton, confidence that they will be able to mail out payments to beneficiaries on time.
Computers at the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services are not as far along, mainly because of the number, size and complexity of the systems.
The Defense Department was of particular concern. Many wondered if the Y2K bug could cause a nuclear weapon to be mistakenly launched. "The good news about it, contrary to the rumor, is that weapons systems in the Defense Department default in an off position," Koskinen said. "So nothing fires automatically."
He's more concerned for the private sector, especially the nation's 23.5 million small businesses. A recent survey found that 50 percent of small businesses had no plans at all for addressing the Year 2000 problem. "We could lose a lot of small businesses," unable to function because of failures of their computers or those of the companies they rely on, Koskinen said.
Pub Date: 12/07/98