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Judge sets hearing on Indian trust fund security
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The federal judge overseeing the Indian trust fund ordered a trial on Monday to determine whether the Interior Department's computer systems are safe from Internet hackers.

In a three-page order, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth scheduled an evidentiary hearing to begin May 2 at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. He asked the Bush administration to submit a list of witnesses who will testify about the security of information technology systems that house billions of dollars worth of Indian trust fund data.

Among those Lamberth wants to hear from is Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary who is temporarily acting as the assistant secretary for Indian affairs. In court testimony, Cason has said the department has reduced the vulnerabilities of its computer systems down to near "zero."

Since then, the department has disclosed that Indian trust data at the Bureau of Land Management is at risk to computer hackers. Earlier this month, the Inspector General conducted tests that uncovered a "poor state of network security" at the agency.

"So we will hear Mr. Cason's explanation then at this evidentiary hearing," Lamberth said last week when he heard from the Cobell plaintiffs about their request to shut down the computer systems and disconnect them from the Internet.

The plaintiffs called for the hearing in light of the IG's discovery. They say they have been kept in the dark about the overall status of information technology at the department.

"The government has not been forthcoming with this type of information and they have seemed as a matter of practice put [officials] forward who know less about the facts than just about anybody else," Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Lamberth.

The plaintiffs will be getting some information as a result of Lamberth's order yesterday. The judge said Interior must turn over "all relevant reports, risk assessments, memoranda, and other documents" under a protective order issued last Friday aimed at protecting sensitive data.

Among the reports that will have to be turned over are the results of the IG's tests. A Department of Justice lawyer acknowledged in open court last week that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Business Center have been tested in addition to the BLM. It is not known how these agencies fared on the tests because Interior has not said anything about them.

Government attorney Glenn Gillette told the court that tests are still being conducted at the Minerals Management Service, the agency that handles billions of dollars in royalty payments to Indian beneficiaries. "The testing of these systems exceeds the standards that normally are applied to these kinds of systems," he said. "The test is expected to come with vulnerabilities."

"In fact, this is one of the purposes -- to find vulnerabilities and resolve them to ensure the security of your system," he added.

Since computer security emerged as an issue in the case in November 2001, Lamberth has ordered Interior to shut down its systems on three different occasions. The Bush administration appealed the most recent order on the grounds that Lamberth exceeded his authority.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last December lifted the shutdown order but said Lamberth was well within his rights to act. "It is indisputable that the Secretary has current and prospective trust management duties that necessitate maintaining secure IT systems in order to render accurate accountings now and in the future," a three-judge panel wrote.

The judges said they were removing the order because Lamberth failed to conduct an evidentiary hearing before issuing the preliminary injunction. The hearing is needed to ensure there is a "factual basis" for shutting down the systems, the appeals court said.

Court Orders:
Evidentiary Hearing Order (April 25, 2005) | Protective Order (April 22, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
Cobell: Ross Swimmer and the truth rarely mix (4/22)
Trust fund security again an issue in Cobell case (4/21)
Lamberth schedules hearing on computer systems (4/20)
Norton blocking information technology report (4/18)
Appeals court supports Lamberth's authority on IT (12/06)
Lamberth critical of Norton's 'bad faith' on trust fund (10/25)
NCAI 04 Wrapup: Day 2 (10/13)
Interior denies attempt to halt trust fund payments (10/05)
Swimmer: Communication with account holders on hold (10/04)
Bush administration challenges trust fund ruling (09/16)
Appeals court takes on Cobell trust fund case (9/15)
Richardson pushes Norton to protect trust fund (08/16)
Small percentage of Interior's IT systems secure (08/10)
Johnson promises 'meaningful' investigation of OST (06/21)
BIA takes advantage of Internet shutdown (05/11)
DOI's Internet connection shut down for third time (03/16)
BIA shows off information technology facility (3/2)
Anderson touts benefits of Cobell trust fund case (02/25)
Lamberth orders DOI to turn over IT reports (12/12)
DOI fares poorly on computer security report card (12/11)
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Court report blasts McCaleb for destroying records (01/27)
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