By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON -- The Year 2000 computer problem could cause serious disruptions abroad, including breakdowns in nuclear reactors and strategic missile systems, midwinter power outages and disruptions in world trade and oil shipments, a CIA official warned on Wednesday.
Air Force Gen. John Gordon, deputy director of the CIA, emphasized at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that gaps in information make it hard to assess the scope of the damage in foreign countries, although it is evident that most countries, particularly Russia, are far behind the United States in preparing for the crisis.
Gordon said Russia has exhibited a low level of awareness for the "Y2K" problems that could occur if computers misread the year 2000 as 1900, causing them to shut down or produce erroneous information.
Midwinter power outages, he said, could have "major humanitarian consequences" in countries such as Russia and Ukraine.
Gordon stressed: "We currently do not see a danger of unauthorized or inadvertent launch of ballistic missiles from any country due to Y2K problems."
But he said there could be serious local problems with missiles if temperature or humidity monitors malfunction, and that problems in early-warning systems could lead to incorrect information.
The developing world faces the greatest threats of disruptions, Gordon said. China will probably experience failures in key sectors such as telecommunications, electric power and banking.
The United States is regarded as the world leader in fixing the Y2K problem, but the draft of a report being prepared by two senators who have been studying the issue, Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said the consequences within the country should not be underestimated.
During this year, they said in a letter to other senators, "We will be confronted with one of the most serious and potentially devastating events this nation has ever encountered."
Their report also pointed to foreign countries as very vulnerable, as well as many private U.S. industries such as health care, food processing and shipping,
"This problem will affect us all individually and collectively in very profound ways, from the availability of electrical power to the quality of our health care," they said.
Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, at the Senate hearing, said 93 percent of the Pentagon's mission-critical computer systems will be fixed by the end of March, the deadline President Clinton set for federal agencies to repair their computers.
"I would also like to take this opportunity to state unequivocally that our nuclear command and control system has been thoroughly tested and has performed superbly," he said.
"Rest assured, although there will be increasing unpredictability and some degradation in some systems, the armed forces will be ready to ensure national security before, on and after the Year 2000," Hamre said. AP-WS-02-24-99 1129EST