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Anderson touts benefits of Cobell trust fund case
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Bureau of Indian Affairs head Dave Anderson (r) leads National Congress of American Indians in cheer. NCAI vice president Joe Garcia and regional representative Leslie Lohse take part. February 24, 2004. Photo © NSM.|
The new head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs praised the
the long-running trust fund lawsuit on Tuesday for having
positive effects on his agency.
In his first appearance before the National Congress of American Indians,
assistant secretary Dave Anderson attributed improvements at
the BIA to the seven-year-old case. "A lot has happened because of Cobell,"
Anderson, who hosted dozens of tribal leaders at his public swearing-in
ceremony on Monday, singled out changes in the BIA's information
technology system. Without the lawsuit, he said the agency
would still be a "musky relic" that continues to be
"I really believe that Cobell has been a good thing for the bureau,"
Anderson told attendees. "That's probably the first time you've
heard somebody say this publicly."
To emphasize some of the improvements, Anderson is taking tribal
leaders on tours of the BIA's new IT center tomorrow.
Located in suburban Washington, D.C., he said the
facility's computer network, which ties all
regions and agencies together, was the "most sophisticated"
within the Department of Interior.
"We have actually a computer command center that looks
like NASA," he beamed. "When I saw it, I said
Indian Country doesn't understand what we have here.
We really need people to come see where
we are today compared to where we were."
In the past two years, the BIA has allocated more than $50 million
for a complete overhaul of its computer system and network.
Brian Burns, the deputy
assistant secretary for information technology, has overseen
the installation of firewalls and other protections
that are meant to safeguard billions of dollars in Indian trust
The changes were prompted by a court report that detailed
how easy it was for anyone with an Internet connection
to break into the BIA. In the summer of 2001, court-appointed hackers
tapped into systems housing land title, ownership and royalty
information without detection. They were able to create a fake
Individual Indian Money (IIM) account.
Despite being warned about the problem by their own experts,
private consultants and the court, higher-ups at
Interior did little to change the situation. That prompted
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to order the department
to ensure that Indian trust systems were not accessible
from the Internet.
Officials responded by cutting off
every system, a move that left account holders, many of
whom are elderly and rely on their payments for their
livelihood, to go without money in the winter of 2001.
It took several months for checks to be written.
Anderson said the BIA is working to get approval from Lamberth
to reconnect to the Internet. In the meantime, the systems
have been running off-line.
Beyond computer systems,
Anderson cited other reforms in trust management. He said the probate backlog would be reduced in four years. He also pointed to the national archive of electronic trust records that
is being created in Kansas with the partnership of Haskell Indian
But not everyone in Indian Country is satisfied with the
Most tribal leaders oppose the ongoing reorganization at
the department because it is drawing resources
from the BIA while expanding the Office of Special Trustee. BIA's budget has
been static while OST's has mushroomed in the past couple of years,
leaving critical Indian programs at flat or decreased funding
When there have been boosts in the BIA budget, it has been in information
technology. With his tours,
Anderson hopes to show tribal leaders that they
are benefiting from that investment.
At NCAI yesterday,
Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of
South Dakota, disputed the claims of progress that Bush
administration officials attribute to the reshuffling.
He said the reorganization will create, not reduce,
backlogs in probate, appraisal and land title.
The probate backlog has doubled in the past five years alone,
according to BIA statistics.
"The current reorganization plan is a waste of money
and resources," Frazier said. Tribes in his region,
the Great Plains, have developed an alternative that
would bring resources to the local level, he said.
"The solutions are not in Washington or Albuquerque, but at
home," he said.
Frazier said the thinking behind the national records archive
is misplaced. In the 1990s,
most tribes gave up their documents to the BIA
and have not seen them despite promises to the contrary.
"We need to bring our IIM records back home," Frazier said.
Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney
handling the Cobell suit, agreed with Frazier's views on
the reorganization. He said bureaucrats in Washington
will push the changes on Indian Country
unless tribes develop their own plans.
Harper also said the plaintiffs have withdrawn a contempt
motion relating to the computer systems. The two sides
are currently discussing mediation of the suit.
"This is a small step in the right direction," he told tribal leaders.
In an interview, Harper took heart with Anderson's comments
about the lawsuit, which was filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell,
a banker from the Blackfeet Nation of Montana.
"We welcome his involvement," he said.
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
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