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Lawyers on Both Sides of the McVeigh Trial Have Their Work Cut Out for Them

Writer and former prosecutor Jeffrey Toobin. He's covered the O.J. Simpson trial for the New Yorker and has been a staff writer for the magazine since 1993. Now he is writing about the Oklahoma City Bombing trial and the issues it uncovers, from jury selection to victims' rights. Toobin is also a Legal Analyst for ABC's "Good Morning America" and the author of the bestselling book "The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson."

35:08

Other segments from the episode on April 24, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 1997: Interview with Jeffrey Toobin; Interview with William Ulrich.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 24, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042401np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Oklahoma City Bombing
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:00

MARTY MOSS-COANE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane in for Terry Gross.

The Oklahoma City bombing trial began today in Denver, Colorado. Timothy McVeigh is charged with blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City two years ago, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more. It was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Terry Nichols, who is a co-defendant in this case, will be tried separately at the end of the trial.

The prosecution has its work cut out for it, because much of the evidence is circumstantial, and the FBI crime lab, which has analyzed the physical evidence of the case, has been severely criticized for its shoddy work. The defense also has its work cut out for it, because if McVeigh is found guilty, he could face the death penalty.

This high-profile trial has drawn thousands of reporters to Denver, including Jeffrey Toobin. Toobin is a staff writer for "The New Yorker" and a legal analyst for ABC News. He was an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn before becoming a journalist, and reported on the trials of O.J. Simpson. His book about that famous case, "The Run of His Life: The People versus O.J. Simpson," just came out in paperback.

I talked with Jeffrey Toobin yesterday about what we should expect to hear, and how he's prepared himself to cover the trial.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, STAFF WRITER, "THE NEW YORKER", AND LEGAL ANALYST/ABC NEWS: I read everything that I can about -- about -- about the facts of the case. I also try to get to know the lawyers a little bit. It's a -- it really is sort of like a political campaign, in that there is a tremendous buildup and a lot of background information.

But things do change dramatically once the trial starts. And it's hard to catch up, once, you know, the jury is impaneled and each day's developments are going. So, I really -- you know, I try to bone up first.

MOSS-COANE: How do you even -- and this may be a silly question -- but how do you even stay in shape, because you have to -- I mean, you're in a different city; you're sitting all day and watching something -- probably not talking very much. Do you have to think about making sure you eat well and sleep well and stay mentally prepared?

TOOBIN: It -- sitting in courtrooms, it can be one of the most excruciating experiences on earth. I -- only when I was a day camp counselor have I suffered as much as when I was -- been covering cases. I had a similar experience during some of the O.J. trial, and when I was a day camp counselor, a job I didn't really enjoy very much.

I would look at my watch in the morning and say, the little hand has to get all the way around to four and a half until I can leave here. And I think I'm going to lose my mind first. And that's -- and -- and during boring parts of trials, you know, you can feel that way -- and time seems to stand still.

But, you know, these events are sufficiently unpredictable that, you know, you sort of have to be there.

MOSS-COANE: Judge Matsch has ordered that journalists sit behind a -- a wall which has been constructed in the courtroom, which really would block the view of -- of the jurors. Is it important for you, as a journalist, to be able to keep your eye on individual jurors, or all of the jurors?

TOOBIN: I find it very important because -- especially when you've been dealing with cases that are televised, the one advantage you have in a courtroom is that you can see the jury, whereas on television, you can never see the jury. Here, in the McVeigh case, where there is no television is -- at all, we are, you know, the eyes of the public in -- in that courtroom.

MOSS-COANE: Well, the judge has said that he's concerned about protecting the privacy -- the anonymity of the jurors, and he's also said that he doesn't want jurors tainted by media coverage or even tainted by the media presence. My understanding is that thousands of journalists have descended on Denver. Do you think a judge should be concerned about so many people from the outside? And -- and concerned about the privacy of people whose -- have a very important job before them?

TOOBIN: Those are all admirable considerations. I mean, you can't argue with wanting to protect people from harassment. But it's also important to remember that jury service is not supposed to be a secret duty. There is an element of accountability -- public accountability -- to being a juror. And just -- to put it in practical terms -- it sometimes happens that there are jurors who fall asleep in court.

I can relate. I've fallen asleep in court. But if it happens a lot, people get thrown off juries. We're not going to know, and the victim's families aren't going to know if there are jurors sleeping in this -- in this courtroom. And I think that's the kind of thing that, you know, the public needs to know in a trial of this importance and, you know, it is not a -- it's not solely the function of the judge to protect the anonymity of jurors.

I think one of the things that people don't focus on enough is that most of the jurors who have become public people following their jury service sought out the attention themselves. They held press conferences. They wrote books. There are jurors in both O.J. Simpson trials -- civil and criminal -- who are still anonymous -- that have never said a word in public. And that's fine and that's their right, but I don't think these extreme steps that the judge has taken are necessary at all.

MOSS-COANE: You've been quoted as saying -- actually, I think it was a piece you had in "The New Yorker" about this judge -- Judge Matsch -- and you say: "He's about as good a judge as the legal system has to offer." And that's quite nice praise coming from you. What -- what do you see as his qualities and qualifications?

TOOBIN: Well, I -- I think he is, above all, a straight shooter. He has a -- he sort of looks like what you imagine a wiry old Coloradan would look like.

MOSS-COANE: Wears cowboy boots to court, right?

TOOBIN: He wears cowboy boots in court and he's kind of thin and wiry and -- and a little bit gruff. And I think he's shown a great deal of courage already in -- in making some very hard and unpopular decisions, the most important of which is granting a severance to Nichols and McVeigh -- meaning there will be separate trials.

That was a very unpopular decision with the prosecutors, with the victims. It's going to be very expensive to have a second trial. But, you know, he's a straight shooter and I think made the right decision there. He's also ruled for the prosecution many, many times in the pretrial proceedings.

But I think this is a guy whose been on the bench a long time. He's been a judge for almost 30 years, if you count his time as a bankruptcy judge. He's -- has no real political affiliations, even though he was appointed, you know, long ago by Richard Nixon. He has no grand ambitions. He's not -- he's not gonna -- looking for promotion. I think he's just trying to do a good job here, and, you know, that's to be admired.

MOSS-COANE: What's his demeanor? Because some reports I was reading about him -- people described him as -- as gruff and even scary at times.

TOOBIN: Well, you know, as someone who used to try cases for a living, I'm all for gruff and a little scary. I mean, anyone who has any experience with lawyers knows that they have a tendency to drone on and on, merely to here the music of their own voices. And good judges know when to tell people to shut up. And -- and Judge Matsch is such a judge.

I just -- he is a little ornery and, you know, these are big boys and girls trying this case, so I don't think they -- you know, a little orneriness is going to hurt them.

MOSS-COANE: You said in preparation for this trial, you've talked to a number of different people, and I'm wondering whether you've talked with families from Oklahoma City who lost loved ones in the explosion -- if you've had a chance to talk to some of those people.

TOOBIN: Many of them.

MOSS-COANE: What do they tell you? What -- What do they hope this trial will do for them?

TOOBIN: Well, it's interesting. Each -- each big trial seems to have sort of a big story that is kind of the sub-text, in the way with the Simpson case, it was -- it was race. I think in this case -- in the McVeigh case -- it really is the victims that -- that capture the public attention more -- more than any of the lawyers involved.

I think, you know, the magnitude of this event -- the extent of the devastation; the loss of so many people and the way the community has reacted to this, gives the victims in this case a special moral authority. And I think one of the consequences of this case is a growth in the victim's rights movement. They have had an enormous success in lobbying Congress to change certain laws regarding the Oklahoma City bombing case already -- while this case is pending -- to get a closed-circuit broadcast back to Oklahoma City; to get the right to both view the trial and testify during the penalty phase.

And -- and I think they are, in many respects really, the big story of this case, more than the lawyers and even more than McVeigh himself.

MOSS-COANE: Tell us about what McVeigh does and how he appears as you watched him in some of the preliminary phases of -- of this case, and -- and just how his demeanor is in the courtroom.

TOOBIN: I think many people, initially, got a very wrong impression of Timothy McVeigh from the -- from the famous perp walk -- that one shot of him that's been replayed endlessly on television -- leaving the jail where he was first arrested. People, I think, have a sense of him as kind of an -- an assassin figure -- kind of the loner, Hinckley, Bremer, Oswald that we have -- become a real, sort of arch-type in American life.

Tim McVeigh's different. He's -- he's an outgoing person. He's a -- a -- he's very animated. He talks to his lawyers. He looks around. He greeted his parents the first day of jury selection. He's -- he's different even from his co-defendant, Terry Nichols, who is much more the loner type.

And I think that's what gives him a somewhat greater fascination than he might otherwise. This is a guy who really has strong political views, to put it mildly, and he is just someone who's a very animated part of his own case.

MOSS-COANE: Is the jury sequestered in this particular trial?

TOOBIN: No. The jury's not sequestered. The jury is anonymous. No one knows their names, and they will be gathering at a central and unidentified location every day, and brought to the courthouse together in a bus, so they won't have to go in and out on their own.

But they are not sequestered. They'll be living in their own homes throughout the trial.

MOSS-COANE: Well, Jeffrey, I want to talk some more, but we're going to take a short break first. And our guest today on FRESH AIR is Jeffrey Toobin. He's a staff writer for "The New Yorker" magazine. He's also a legal analyst for ABC News, and he joins us from Denver and he's covering the case of the trial of Timothy McVeigh, accused of the bombing in Oklahoma City just about two years ago.

We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

Our guest is Jeffrey Toobin, and we're talking about the trial in Denver, which begins today, the trial of Timothy McVeigh.

Let's talk about each side of this particular trial, the trial of Timothy McVeigh. What is the prosecution's case against McVeigh as it stands now?

TOOBIN: To put it simply, there are really three areas of the prosecution's case that are important. The first is the issue of motive, and this is the -- the idea that McVeigh is a right-wing extremist who had a tremendous grievance against the government, principally because of the storming of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas one year to the day -- two years to the day -- before the bombing. And -- and that is going to be a, you know, a central part of the case.

The second part is McVeigh's involvement in preparing the bomb, most importantly, renting the Ryder truck under a pseudonym which was the truck that exploded.

MOSS-COANE: Right.

TOOBIN: And -- and, of course, his -- his involvement in buying the ingredients -- the fertilizer, the jet fuel -- that was -- that the government claims was used to make -- to make the bomb.

And the third area is the forensic and scientific area, most dramatically what the government claims is bomb residue on -- on McVeigh's shirt at the time he was arrested; and the -- the entire scientific investigation of what -- of what the bomb consisted of and how McVeigh was tied to it.

MOSS-COANE: The prosecution team is headed by an attorney named Joseph Hartzler, and he gets around in a -- in a motorized scooter. I understand that he has MS. Can -- can you give us a feel for the style, the approach of this prosecution team headed up by this man?

TOOBIN: Well, Joe Hartzler is -- is a -- very interesting story. He was a successful prosecutor in Chicago throughout the 1980s, and was a big athlete, a big sort of man-about-town, and got married and discovered he had MS and decided to sort of slow down his life a little, and left the big city and moved to Springfield, Illinois, where he remained in the U.S. attorney's office, but in that more slower-paced environment, where he gets to coach little league and manage his health. Notwithstanding that change in life, he immediately volunteered to get involved in this case, and will be the lead prosecutor in this case.

I've -- one of the curious things about the way he's organized the case is that it's really a team effort, with about a half dozen prosecutors. Hartzler argued almost no pre-trial motions and did not participate in jury selection. Three other lawyers -- prosecution lawyers -- questioned the jurors. So, his involvement, while central, is going to be but one of a significant team.

MOSS-COANE: Now, his counterpart is Timothy McVeigh's attorney. His name is Stephen Jones. And he's from Oklahoma City himself and has kind of described himself as a country lawyer. He's someone that has -- has a fairly fiery personality, as I understand it. Describe how he appears to be defending his client? What his approach is?

TOOBIN: I'll tell you -- I tell you, every time these guys -- there must be like a school somewhere where they all get to say, you know, I'm just a country lawyer. You know, it's like -- you know, as soon as you hear that, reach for your wallet and make sure it's still there.

The fact is, he is not a country lawyer. He is an Anglophile. He's a -- used to work for Richard Nixon. He's -- you know -- a very successful lawyer. He's not a country lawyer, but, you know, he's got that kind of twang ...

MOSS-COANE: Right.

TOOBIN: ... and he cultivates that -- he cultivates that appearance. He has been a very aggressive media lawyer. He has cultivated reporters. He has been very active in the -- in the way that the prosecution has not -- talking in public about the weaknesses of the case. You can be sure that the central parts of his case will be: attacking the eyewitness testimony that puts McVeigh at various places at various times; and attacking the science -- the much-maligned FBI lab that attempts to tie McVeigh to the crime.

What is questionable is in briefs and in interviews, he's talked a lot about the possibility of foreign involvement in this bombing. Whether he can get any of that in front of the jury is much more of an open question, and I think that's going to be one of the interesting themes as this case unfolds.

MOSS-COANE: Do you know why he took this case? Again, he's an attorney from Oklahoma City -- the scene of this horrible crime. I know that he's had death threats because he has decided to be Timothy McVeigh's attorney. Has he spelled out his reasons why he wanted to take this case?

TOOBIN: The one thing that is for sure is that Stephen Jones is having the time of his life. Lawyers love this. Everyone in the world knows who Stephen Jones is now. And he -- and he thinks that's great. This is an exciting case. It's a difficult case. If he wins, he'll be acclaimed as the greatest lawyer in all -- in all of the United States.

If he loses, it's going to be because people see that this was an overwhelming case. He's assembled a vast team here of lawyers -- 14 lawyers -- all at taxpayer expense. I don't -- I think he is in no hurry for this experience to end.

MOSS-COANE: Earlier this year, Stephen Jones had a -- had a problem -- a purported confession leaked out from the defense team and ended up on the pages of the "Dallas Morning News", and it was questions about whether McVeigh had actually confessed to this crime, or whether it was a kind of a trick, as Jones said, to get another witness to talk.

How much do you think this leaked story has hurt Timothy McVeigh's case?

TOOBIN: Well, it certainly hasn't helped, that's for sure. One of the fortunate things is, when this story broke, the judge had already sent jury notices out to the pool of about 1,000 people from whom the jury was drawn. In that jury notice, they were told -- try to avoid reading about or following on television any news about the case.

During jury selection, one thing that struck me was that a lot of these jurors had followed those instructions pretty well ...

MOSS-COANE: Really?

TOOBIN: ... or at least seemed to. The -- jury selection was a great lesson in humility for me, as a journalist. These people found my commentary and everyone else's commentary about this case quite missable. And they were -- and they were remarkably uninformed about -- about much about this case. So I think while certainly this story didn't do Jones and, of course, his client any good, I think it wasn't quite as devastating as I expected it was going to be.

MOSS-COANE: I want to talk more about some of the evidence and some of the people who will be appearing at this trial. And I know that the prosecution is going to bring a -- a friend, I guess, a former friend of Timothy McVeigh's to the stand -- a fellow named Michael Fortier. He was an Army buddy of McVeigh.

What does the prosecution hope to prove with his testimony, Michael Fortier?

TOOBIN: Well, this -- this witness, if -- if perform -- if he performs as advertised, is going to be pure gold for the prosecution. You know, it is one of the chilling and fascinating parts of this case that in the late 1980s in basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, there were -- in a very small class -- Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and Michael Fortier.

And they became friends and they served in the Army together, and McVeigh served in the Persian Gulf War, and they stayed in touch. And McVeigh discussed with Fortier, extensively, his growing alienation from the government and his anger at gun control and his anger at the crisis in Waco. And according to -- what appears -- you know, what we've learned through various means, Fortier will testify that McVeigh said he wanted to blow up the Murrah Building as a political protest. Now, if the jury believes him, the case is more or less over.

MOSS-COANE: Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer for "The New Yorker", and a legal analyst for ABC News. He'll join us in the second half of the show as we talk more about the Oklahoma City bombing trial.

I'm Marty Moss-Coane, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane.

Let's continue our conversation with reporter Jeffrey Toobin, who's out in Denver to cover the Oklahoma City bombing trial for "The New Yorker" and ABC News.

Timothy McVeigh is charged with blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, making it the worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history.

One of the problems facing the prosecution is the integrity of their evidence, which has been undermined by a scathing report about the FBI crime lab. Some two tons of material from Oklahoma City were taken to the crime lab, and this report actually singled out some of the work done on this case, and then questioned some of the procedures and questioned some of the conclusions. How much do you think the prosecution can rely on the FBI crime lab to help their case?

TOOBIN: Well, it's important to remember that the prosecutors in this case have known that that was -- report was coming for months and months, and have been planning on dealing with this problem. I mean, what they have decided to do -- and it's actually rather striking -- is almost to try this case as if the FBI lab didn't exist.

By that, I mean they have basically taken every piece of evidence that was removed from Oklahoma City and that they plan to introduce -- and given it to an expert from Scotland Yard -- a unassailable, uncontroversial, widely-respected analyst from Scotland Yard who re-analyzed everything. And the prosecution is not really going to call anyone from the FBI lab who -- whose work is in question at all.

So, I think this problem will not really be as big as it seems when the trial plays out. But I think it is rather extraordinary, and a sad commentary, that here, you have the premier crime lab, supposedly -- I mean, certainly the most well-known crime lab in the United States -- and you have the most important crime of the decade in the United States -- and the government is so embarrassed by the lab that they're not even going to call a single witness from it. It's a pretty shocking commentary.

MOSS-COANE: Do you think this case is going to hinge on DNA and some other arcane scientific information -- EDTA, which we heard about from the O.J. Simpson trial. Since most of the case against McVeigh as it stands now is -- is circumstantial. There's no eyewitness that can put him at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. And there -- there are just many, it seems to me, holes in the case at this point, which makes me wonder about whether, again, it's going to come down to all sorts of complex scientific analysis of clothing and pieces of Ryder truck.

TOOBIN: I don't think so. I think a great deal of it is going to eyewitness testimony, putting McVeigh at different places -- not at the -- not at the crime scene, but, you know, the critical testimony of him renting the truck. And I think it's also important to remember there's a lot of corroboration of the eyewitness testimony here, and I don't think it's going to be extremely complicated.

For example, the -- the truck was rented under the name "Robert Cling". Michael Fortier's wife will testify that he -- that she made a fake ID for Tim McVeigh under the name Robert Cling -- in fact, the ID that was used to rent this truck. Handwriting analysis will -- will say that that handwriting is on -- is on -- that McVeigh's handwriting is on the rental agreement for that truck.

On another subject, a receipt for purchase of an enormous amount of the kind of fertilizer that was used in this bomb -- there's a fingerprint on that receipt which was found at Terry Nichols' house -- a fingerprint of Timothy McVeigh.

It's these kind of things that I think the case will hinge on, and that, I don't think, is -- is all that complicated.

MOSS-COANE: One of the books that apparently is a favorite of Timothy McVeigh, and has been, apparently, rather influential on his thinking is a book called "The Turner Diaries." Have you read this book?
TOOBIN: I have indeed.

MOSS-COANE: And what's your take on it?

TOOBIN: This book is the American Mein Kampf. It is an absolutely full-throated genocidal book about how the white people will rise against a government that is crazed and taken over by left-wingers and blacks and people who want to -- who want to restrict gun ownership. And it includes acts of tremendous violence, including the bombing of an FBI building, much like the charge in this case.

MOSS-COANE: Do you think this book will play a role in this trial?

TOOBIN: A huge role, because in McVeigh's car when he was arrested were pointed excerpts from the book, and several of McVeigh's friends and acquaintances will testify about how McVeigh was motivated by the political tenets in that book.

MOSS-COANE: And Jones' job is really to just keep reminding the jury that if they come to a verdict of guilty, it has to be beyond a reasonable doubt. They have to be entirely certain that Timothy McVeigh committed this crime. That's his job, yes?

TOOBIN: His job is -- as defense lawyers always say -- they don't have to prove anything.

MOSS-COANE: Right.

TOOBIN: They don't have to prove that someone else did it. They don't even have to prove that McVeigh didn't do it. They only need to show that the government's evidence is not sufficiently reliable. And I expect that this will be a very scattershot defense -- plucking away at each individual piece of evidence in an effort to show that the entire narrative can't be pieced together.

You know, it's important to remember that, you know, people get convicted of crimes every day, and most of the time, in criminal cases. So it's not like this burden is insurmountable. But I think especially in high-profile cases, jurors take their jobs very seriously and they are going to be looking to make sure all the dots connect.

MOSS-COANE: And is this a death penalty case, in that if McVeigh is found guilty, he could be sentenced to death?

TOOBIN: The way it -- this case will work is the jury will first decide guilt or not guilty. There will then be, if there's a verdict of guilty on the principal charge, a separate proceeding -- new witnesses, new lawyers for the prosecution -- who will argue that McVeigh should get death, rather than life without parole. And that will be a very different proceeding, with different rules and it is likely to be highly, highly dramatic if and when it happens.

MOSS-COANE: You're both a lawyer and a journalist, and I wonder whether when you're covering a case as a journalist, either this one or the O.J. Simpson trial or other cases that might not be quite so high-profile, whether there are times you wish you were a lawyer and not a journalist, that you wish you were arguing the case.

TOOBIN: You know, this is one of the things that -- that surprises me. The answer to that question is an emphatic "no."

MOSS-COANE: Really.

TOOBIN: I mean, I really -- I really have switched over. I mean, I'm very glad to have been a prosecutor. I love being a lawyer. I had a great time doing it, but I think the worst thing you can do in my position is to pretend you were some kind of, you know, God's gift to the lawyering profession, and think that you could do everything better than the people who are up there.

One thing I have is an appreciation that what all these lawyers do is hard. And sure, maybe individual questions or individual witnesses, I think, well, I wouldn't have done it that way. But I really don't sit there and -- and compare my skills to theirs. I mean, I think I have a great degree of empathy for the difficulties and pressures that they face, but I'm a retired lawyer and no plans to change that status.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I know that cameras are forbidden in -- in federal courtrooms, and you covered both O.J. Simpson trials; of course, one with cameras and one without. Do you have a position on that? Whether you think it's a good thing or not a good thing to have cameras in the courtroom?

TOOBIN: Well, it's a good thing that I'm not running for office, because I could be accused of flip-flopping on the issue of cameras in the courtroom many times. I would often change my position daily on that question. And I can't say that I -- that I have a finely tuned position. I guess at the end of the day, I think that, you know, what goes on in courtrooms is the public's business, for better or for worse.

And, yes, in -- in a very small handful of the most high-profile cases -- and by that I mean O.J. Simpson and perhaps a very small others -- the cameras do have an impact. They do change people's opinions -- I mean, change people's behavior. But I think that is a price to pay -- a price worth paying for letting the public know how the legal system works.

I mean, the fact is we live in a society where most people get the vast majority of their information electronically, and much as I have a reverence for the printed word, it simply is not as good to let people know what goes on in courtrooms as showing them.

And, you know, it's their courtrooms. It's not the judges' and it's not the lawyers.' So I think they ought to say it -- they ought to be able to see it.

MOSS-COANE: Well, Jeffrey Toobin, we're out of time, and I thank you very much for joining us today on FRESH AIR.

TOOBIN: My pleasure, Marty. I hope we talk again.

MOSS-COANE: Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer for "The New Yorker", and a legal analyst for ABC News. His book about another high-profile trial, "The Run of His Life: The People versus O.J. Simpson" is out in paperback.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Jeffrey Toobin
High: New Yorker staff writer, and former prosecutor, Jeffrey Toobin talks about the Oklahoma City bombing trial which is now under way. He's covered the O.J. Simpson trial for the New Yorker. Marty Moss-Coane talks to Toobin about the issues involved in the Oklahoma case, from jury selection to victims' rights. Toobin's book, "The Run of His Life: The People versus O.J. Simpson" is out in paperback

Head: The Millennium Bug
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:40

This is FRESH AIR. Whoops! That's what computer experts are saying about a glitch that's going to wreak havoc on January 1 in the year 2000. The problem goes back to a design decision that was made in the early days of computer development -- to use a two-digit shorthand for the date.

For instance, the year 1970 is read in shorthand by computer software simply as 70. While that made sense 30 years ago, when the year 2000 rolls around, many computer systems will only be able to show it as 00.

This could have far-reaching consequences. Possible doomsday scenarios include a global financial crisis, satellites falling from the sky, industrial assembly lines halted and hospital life-support systems crashing.

My guest, Bill Ulrich, is co-author of "The Year 2000 Software Crisis." He's also working with businesses and government agencies who are scrambling to get their computer systems ready for the millennium. I asked Ulrich how we got into this mess.

WILLIAM ULRICH, PRESIDENT, TACTICAL STRATEGY GROUP, INC.: Well, there were a couple of different reasons. But if we go back and look at the history of computers, the NEAC (ph) computer, for example, built in 1944 was the size of an 18-wheeler semi-truck and less powerful than computational chip built today.

In the 1950s and 1960s when we were first getting into computer software writing, particularly the 1960s and early '70s, there was a tremendous limitation on the amount of memory and space that we had to store information. And that limitation of memory forced us into using abbreviations for a lot of different types of things.

One of the abbreviations we selected was to use a two-digit versus a four-digit year field when we represented a date. So the computer would see the number 68 and assume that it was 1968.

The cost of the memory at the point in time that they were building these systems was fairly significant, and it was about $175 per month per megabyte. Not to get too technical...

MOSS-COANE: Right.

ULRICH: But the cost of that same amount of memory today is about a penny a month. So you can see how the differentiation broke down.

MOSS-COANE: Well, do you think some of those early programmers believed that over time and as technology evolved that the two-digit would become the four-digit and we wouldn't be faced with the problem that we're faced with today?

ULRICH: They really did. And, in fact, not just the people in the '60s or even the '70s, but the people writing programs in the 1980s clearly believed that there was no way that those programs would be around at the end of the century.

Everyone, even into the early 1990s, most corporations believed that their systems would be replaced. And most government agencies as well believed that their systems would be rewritten and replaced on new machines called client-server systems. The software would be written from scratch, and it would be using the newly expanded four-digit year field, as opposed to the old two-digit year field.

MOSS-COANE: So why didn't that happen?

ULRICH: We have systems out there that have been running for a number of years that perform all of these different primarily business functions, but many other functions in our lives. The people who wrote those systems are no longer essentially with the company.

The people who told the programmers that wrote the systems what to code, in other words, what problem that this -- the computer system that they were writing should fix are also no longer with the company.

So the people who use the computer systems today in most corporations and government environments and the people who work on or maintain the computer systems don't understand what functionality is inside of those systems.

They don't have an understanding of what those systems truly do or how they do it, OK? So -- so you're processing all this information, but it's not clear exactly what's going on inside these computer systems. And without a concerted effort to really go in there -- and there's some ways to do this -- and to document what those systems are doing and how they're doing it -- and it takes some effort to do that -- you don't really have a good understanding of what those systems do.

So you can't write a new system to do the same thing because you don't know where to go for the information. So time after time after time, the replacement systems either fall far short and do not replace the old system or the project is canceled in its entirety.

In fact, there's a statistic in the information technology market that projects are either late, not delivered at all or fall far short of their goal 96 percent of the time. Now, that it stems from the fact that executives -- and I'll not just point at the technology executives -- but senior executives in companies are going for a very quick fix, "replace with new technology" approach to this, which is not working.

And this goes on and on every day in our corporations out there.

MOSS-COANE: So you're saying it's really a different generation of computers, a different generation of systems designers on top of that. A kind of short-term thinking, which is that we'll fix the problem short term and we won't think long term. And that's how we got ourself into this mess?

ULRICH: Exactly.

MOSS-COANE: If nothing is done or the problem cannot be fixed, cannot be solved, what then will happen to computers on January 1 in the year 2000?

ULRICH: Well, first of all, let me say that this problem does not just magically appear on January 1, 2000. It actually, in many systems, it's actually occurring already.

And a simple test for the people that are out there that carry credit cards in their wallet is to take their credit cards out, and if they've gotten a new credit card issued to them within the course of the last several months since the beginning of this calendar year, you can look and see what the renewal date is.

And if the renewal date is 1999 or 99 on your credit card when historically you've always gotten a three-year renewal date and I'm carrying one of these credit cards in my pocket right now. That means that the system that tracks your credit reporting and credit card processing doesn't have the ability to look at dates past 1999, and they actually had to go in and rig the system to only issue two-year versus three-year credit cards.

So the problem is happening now. Other people I've spoken to have gotten credit cards with the 00 in the expiration date, and they've gotten them rejected by various merchants.

So the problem is here. It tends to become more apparent as we get closer and closer to 2000. But the key thing that happens on January 1, 2000 is that that's when the computers are actually beginning to process dates that have a 00 in the year field.

And that's the unpredictable point. But there's a number of industries and areas that are impacted. For example, satellite systems -- it's likely that some satellite systems may actually have to be shut down.

The question of how do we fix software and hardware that we can't get to, such as satellite systems or switching equipment that buried, you know, 5 feet to 10 feet underground around the country? How do we fix those types of systems? So that there may be some potential communication problems that could occur.

Air traffic control potential problems, global positioning systems within satellites are another potential area that could have a problem.

MOSS-COANE: Let me just jump in here because I want to make sure that the audience understands what's happening because I think those people in the industry are up to date on this. But for those people that are casual users of computers, I just want to make sure they understand what it is.

So if we're talking about the year 2000, for many computers, then when that happens on January 1 in the year 2000, many computers are going to think it's actually the year 1900. Is that right?

ULRICH: That's exactly correct.

MOSS-COANE: So computers, in a sense, will go back in time?

ULRICH: They will go back in time, and they will think that they have gone 100 years back in time, which -- and various things, again, can occur depending on how the systems were written.

If they think that they went back in time, for example, with an insurance system or with a fairly simple credit card system or your cash card that you carry in your pocket, what will basically happen is that they will think that your credit card, your cash cards, your insurance policies, your driver's license, everything is expired and that it's totally invalid.

And that you'll be rejected when you try and buy something at a store. Those are basic problems that the industry is foreseeing for at least a couple of years now.

MOSS-COANE: Bill Ulrich is the co-author of "The Year 2000 Software Crisis." We'll talk more about this so-called millennium bug in just one minute. This is FRESH AIR.

Our guest is Bill Ulrich and we're talking about the millennium bug and the fact that many computers are not prepared for the year 2,000.

Give us a feel for the magnitude of this potential problem worldwide.

ULRICH: Well, just -- let me give you some statistics and, you know, we can try and work from there.

MOSS-COANE: OK.

ULRICH: The -- the software industry estimates that there are 200 billion lines of software around the world. That is an...

MOSS-COANE: What does that mean?

ULRICH: ... estimate.

MOSS-COANE: Yeah, what does that mean, "lines of software?"

ULRICH: OK. When a programmer sits down to write a program, they -- they write it like a letter. So if you can think that you're sitting down and you're writing a letter on your word processor, and you've got an 8.5 by 11 screen to work with or work sheet to work with. One line of code, you know, takes -- takes a programmer a few seconds to write.

A given program that, say, processes your credit transactions or whatever is -- is roughly 1,000 to 1,500 lines of software. So, it's like you're writing a letter but you're not writing it in English, you're writing it in a computer language, which, by the way, there's thousands of.

MOSS-COANE: Right.

ULRICH: And you're writing in a language -- and some of the language names, just for people out there to understand, one -- the most popular one is called COBOL. And there's other languages such as Fortran and numerous other types of languages.

So, a line of code is something that a programmer sits down and writes. And a given program that processes, again, a credit card transaction or whatever, might be about 1,500 lines of code.

The industry itself has created about 200 billion lines of code. Now, that's a hard number to get your hands around. The estimates are that to fix this problems it's going to cost people, roughly, one dollar per line of code. So, if you run those numbers out just quickly, you're looking at $400 billion problem.

And there have been some estimates that that's what it costs to fix the problem, but since most people are going to get most things fixed, but not everything, there will be some other ramifications. For example, assembly lines breaking down; people sitting idle at a plant for two weeks. And that the overall cost to the worldwide economy is going to be something closer to $600 billion to $800 billion, or closer to a trillion dollars.

MOSS-COANE: If someone owns their own personal computer, they don't know all the ins and outs of it, they don't know all the ways that it's set up. What do you suggest that they do as they prepare themselves for the year 2,000? What do you want them to do with their computer?

ULRICH: Well, the first thing they should do is to see how old the system is. I mean, it's -- it's very clear that some of these systems just will not support the year 2000. For example, if you're running an old version of DOS on a 286 chip. It's very, very unlikely that that system is going to function properly. So, you probably don't even need to bother testing it.

But if you have a 486 or a Pentium chip or one of the new Macintoshes, my suggestion again is to back everything up on your system, as you should normally anyway. And then to go in and reset the dates to just before midnight, December 31, 1999 and watch the date rollover and make sure that it still looks OK. It should say January 1, 2000.

And then you should restart your computer and make sure the date is still consistent and then you should go in and start taking a look at some of your applications to make sure that they're all functioning properly.

The biggest problem people have with PCs hardware is the basic input-output system; it's called a BIOS. And a lot of the BIOSES (ph) are -- even today, they're still selling BIOSES that are not ready for the year 2000 and can't store the future dates. So, what you can do is you can contact your computer manufacturer and they should be able to either fix or give you some information on how to get -- how to get your BIOS fixed.

There's patches that have been created that can correct that. So, you don't have to throw out your computer system; you can just get the BIOS fixed.

MOSS-COANE: What should consumers be aware of if they're thinking about some of the -- the products they buy, the television sets, the VCRs, things like that?

ULRICH: Well, when -- when you make your final decision on which -- which VCR or television set you're going to buy, if -- if the product that you're buying contains a date field, you should try to enter "2000" into that date field. I had a colleague go into a store and reprogram every single VCR inside of a -- a store that was selling VCRs and television sets.

A number of VCRs that cost less than $279 at a given store, did not support the year 2000. So that after 2000 arrived they would not be able to program their VCRs to do a taping, say, an advanced taping or a future taping, so that they just wouldn't function.

There's a number of other products out there that contain dates. And before you actually buy the product you should check it out. And don't buy the product if it doesn't work in the year 2000.

MOSS-COANE: Bill Ulrich is co-author of "The Year 2000 Software Crisis." He also consults with business and government agencies, getting their systems ready for the millennium.

For Terry Gross, I'm Marty Moss-Coane.

Dateline: Terry Moss-Coane, Philadelphia, PA; Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Bill Ulrich
High: Guest host Marty Moss-Coane talks with William Ulrich about the coming millennium crisis when computers will fail to run on 20th century hardware. Ulrich is president of Tactical Strategy Group, Inc. and a strategic year 2000 advisor for corporations and government agencies. He is the author of "The Year 2000 Software Crisis." It is a guide to solving the problems that will arise in the millennium when computer software will translate the two-digit shorthand "'00" as "1900," not "2000." For companies worldwide, this computer failure could lead to business failure.
Spec: Business; Computers; Economy; Hardware; Millennium; Technology; Telecommunications
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: The Millennium Bug
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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