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Bennett a victim of own success in Y2K efforts

WASHINGTON — When Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, decided to became a Paul Revere to warn the world about the Y2K computer bug, he knew it could — and likely would — be a thankless job.

In fact, he and his Y2K-warning partner, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said two years ago, "We're in a no-win position because if everything works, they will blame us for crying wolf. And if nothing works, they will blame us for not fixing it."

Bennett recalled that prediction Monday as he sipped a soda and watched much of the national press pack up and leave the national Y2K command center. It was ceasing around-the-clock operations early because only minor glitches had occurred.

Things were so smooth, in fact, that the main question asked repeatedly was whether the Y2K bug was ever real. Just as Bennett had said might happen, he and others were facing questions about whether they had cried wolf.

Bennett is a natural target for that because few people had ever heard of the Y2K bug until a banking subcommittee that he chairs held a series of hearings on it. The Senate then formed a special committee on the problem and made Bennett its chief.

He was the point man who made often dire predictions about what could occur — economic crashes, blackouts and water shortages — if the government and business did not work hard on the problem. He prodded President Clinton to appoint a Y2K czar, John Koskinen, to help. He badgered foreign nations to act.

Over time as improvements came, Bennett's predictions became increasingly mild — until he predicted in recent weeks that few problems would occur in America.

"Just before the new year, some doomsayers attacked me for 'happy talk,' saying I was lying when I said I didn't think it would be too bad," Bennett said.

Now, he faces the opposite — questions about whether Y2K was ever real. When asked again why so few problems came, he said simply, "The best-case scenario has come true, which isn't usual around here."

Koskinen, while chatting with Bennett, added, "We're victims of our own success."

Bennett said, however, "I do not apologize at all for the amount of attention paid to this because as those few failures that have occurred have demonstrated, it is a real problem and if left unaddressed could have led to genuine disaster."

He also noted that America spent $100 billion to fix Y2K problems, most of it from private businesses. "Managers who approved most of those other expenditures are not in the business of overspending. . . . They knew the threat was real," he said.

Bennett said that in hindsight, the only real mistake his panel may have made was originally overestimating (based on testimony of experts) the effect of Y2K on computer chips embedded in equipment. Over time, they realized that would not be a big problem — but it had led to many of the early dire predictions.

"Once we found out the embedded chip problem was not that serious, we got attacked from some of the doomsayers that said, 'You're lying, you're covering up,' " he said.

Like Koskinen, Bennett said the Y2K bug is now squashed, and his predictions of the future are rosy.

For example, while economists had told his panel that Y2K worries could lead to a flat first quarter economically, he said, "I now think that the slowdown in the first quarter of 2000 will not be as great as those have predicted."

Also, he doubts now that terrorists bugged many computer systems — despite fears they might try to do so and use Y2K as a cover.

"I think the amount of focus we put on the terrorism possibility and Y2K was a factor in holding it down. Hackers and others who would use this for terrorist purposes would rather do it in a time when the awareness and preparation is not as high," he said.

In other words, he's happy that a Paul Revere was able to awaken the troops into action — even if the vanquished enemy now appears weak because victory seemed too easy.

Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at