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DOI's Internet connection shut down for third time
Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The federal judge handling the Indian trust fund lawsuit ordered the Department of Interior to shut down its Internet connection on Monday, a move that plunged many of the agency's computer systems back into the dark ages.

For the third time since December 2001, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth blasted the department for failing to correct known security vulnerabilities. In a 29-page decision, he called Interior "incapable" of ensuring that billions of dollars of Indian money are safe from computer hackers.

"While Interior will no doubt continue to suffer some hardship and inconvenience as a result of having systems disconnected from the Internet, such hardship is outweighed by the potential alteration or destruction of [Indian] trust data by unauthorized access through the Internet," Lamberth wrote.

Lamberth cited a number of factors that contributed to his preliminary injunction. He said the department's computer security plan was "facially inadequate" because it lacked standards and didn't allow for independent verification.

"This court cannot conceive of any means by which Interior could be allowed to monitor itself and be solely responsible, without external monitoring, for the security of individual Indian trust data," he said.

Even the department's own report to the White House showed what little progress has been made, Lamberth noted. Nearly two years after being told to improve information technology, Secretary Gale Norton in September 2000 said her computer systems still "do not have the necessary security capabilities to facilitate more open access via the Internet."

A little-noticed General Accounting Office (GAO) report, also issued that month, backed up that view. "The Department of the Interior has limited capacity to effectively manage its planned and ongoing IT investments," the report stated.

Just three months later, a Congressional committee gave Interior an "F" on computer security. "The list of problem areas is simply frightening and takes up eight pages" of a "self assessment" written by the department's chief information officer, Lamberth observed.

But what appeared to tip the scale against Interior was its deteriorating relationship with special master Alan Balaran, a court official assigned to a broad range of trust issues, including information technology. Lamberth said the department had been working well with Balaran up until July 2003, when a spat over a power cord heightened a long-running campaign to kick him off the case.

In fact, the Bush administration's attempt to disqualify Balaran was in high gear yesterday before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel -- composed of the same judges who threw out contempt charges against Norton and former Indian affairs aide Neal McCaleb -- heard the department's motion to prevent Balaran, and Judge Lamberth, from investigating allegations of record destruction by dozens of government officials.

Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg and Judges A. Raymond Randolph and Karen Lecraft Henderson followed up by issuing an order late in the day temporarily barring Balaran from handling the contempt complaint. A final decision could take months.

The court's action places Balaran's role in jeopardy. Last year, the three judges took another court official who had been extremely critical of the department off the case.

But Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney representing more than 500,000 Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders, wouldn't characterize the latest development as a setback. He said Balaran's broad mandate, including work on information technology, will continue pending a final decision from the appeals court.

"We're pretty confident on the outcome," he said.

Harper also said department officials have flouted their own pledge to work with Balaran on computer security matters. "Balaran gave them an opportunity to ensure the systems were safe," he said. "They did not do that correctly."

Just last month, the new head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs boasted of the improvements to his agency's computer systems. In a speech to tribal leaders, assistant secretary Dave Anderson praised the IIM plaintiffs for making information technology a priority.

"I really believe that Cobell has been a good thing for the bureau," said Anderson, referring to lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell. "That's probably the first time you've heard somebody say this publicly."

In a subsequent tour, arranged by Anderson, of the BIA's new computer technology center in suburban Washington, D.C., officials repeatedly stressed that the agency's computers were still not connected to the Internet, meaning that the latest shutdown order will not have an impact. "We are working through the court to get back to the Internet," said Brian Burns, the BIA's chief information officer, at the time.

A number of other DOI agencies, however, had been given approval to back online. By last night, the websites and e-mail systems for the Office of the Secretary, the Office of Special Trustee, the Inspector General, the Minerals Management Service, the Office of Surface and Mining, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Businesss Center and the Bureau of Reclamation were down.

The Bureau of Land Management was still online as of this morning. The agency handles fire-supression efforts for the nation's federal lands and Lamberth's order carves out an exception for computer systems "essential for the protection against fires or other threats to life or property." The U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors earthquakes and other potential natural disasters, the National Park Service, and the Office of Policy Management and Budget also remain online.

Court Decisions:
Memorandum Opinion  | Preliminary Injunction 

GAO Report:
Departmental Leadership Crucial to Success of Investment Reforms at Interior (September 2003)

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:
BIA shows off information technology facility (3/2)
Appeals court to hear Cobell disqualification dispute (3/1)
Anderson praises Cobell suit in NCAI speech (2/25)
Lamberth orders DOI to turn over IT reports (12/12)
DOI fares poorly on computer security report card (12/11)
Judge seeks to break impasse over trust systems (07/29)
BIA incident prompts high-level recommendation (03/27)
Court report blasts McCaleb for destroying records (01/27)
Court: McCaleb 'fabricated' e-mail story (1/24)
BIA aides circumventing court (12/16)
Martin's role in incident surfaces (12/16)
BIA aides e-mail use prompts inquiry (12/17)
McCaleb admits to e-mail 'misunderstanding' (10/23)
Burns takes on BIA problems in stride (08/23)
McCaleb gets new computer official (6/5)
Retaliation charged as BIA official jumps ship (7/25)

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