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BIA seeks Internet access for its schools
Monday, March 22, 2004

The Bureau of Indian Affairs will seek permission to reconnect its schools to the public Internet, a top official said on Sunday.

Ed Parisian, director of BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs, said the agency is asking a federal judge to reconsider his decision to shut down the Internet connection. Last week, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction that forced the schools and other Department of Interior computer systems offline.

"It's got a lot of implications in a lot of places," Parisian said yesterday at the 8th annual National Indian Education Association legislative summit in Washington, D.C.

Indian Country schools were previously shielded from two prior shutdown orders because their computer systems reside on a network separate from the BIA. EDNET, as the school network is known, had been connected to the Internet while the rest of BIA remains offline.

But in response to a breakdown in the relationship between the department and his court, Lamberth broadened the scope of his latest order. Officials responded by cutting EDNET's connection to the Internet last Monday.

"We finally got caught in the Cobell case," Parisian said, referring to the long-running class action lawsuit seeking accountability for billions of dollars in Indian-owned money.

Previously, he added, "We were outside the computer system that's in the BIA."

The BIA has been soliciting Indian school educators for information on the impact of the shutdown. Parisian said government lawyers would submit the information to Lamberth this week.

Some attendees of NIEA's summit, which runs through Tuesday, were frustrated with the latest activity but took it in stride. The shutdown mostly affects high school and post-secondary students, like those at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Lamberth's order, like his earlier ones, outlines a process to reconnect DOI's computer systems to the Internet but officials last week attacked it as "a new frontier in this court's efforts to run the operations of the executive branch agencies." For nearly a year, the department and its lawyers have been feuding with special master Alan Balaran over the reconnection process.

Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the minority leader, on Friday expressed dismay that the department allowed the BIA schools to go offline. In a letter, he called on Secretary Gale Norton to "take the necessary steps to comply with the demands of the court order so that the operations of the DoI and its related agencies are not adversely affected by a situation that is easily fixable."

He also wrote, "These students should not be penalized for the failure of your Department to adequately protect information about Indian trust accounts, or for your Department's continued inability to resolve the historical mismanagement of Indian trust accounts."

The BIA oversees 185 schools and dormitories throughout Indian Country. Most are elementary schools and all have Internet access. The last Internet hookup occurred in 2001 at a remote school on the Navajo Nation.

At a tour of the BIA's new computer facility in northern Virginia last month, information technology officials confirmed that EDNET operates independently of TRUSTNET, the new name for the BIA's network. The separation ensures the BIA schools do not house, or have access to, Indian trust data.

Both networks, however, are overseen by the same senior manager. TRUSTNET remains offline due to concerns over security vulnerabilities. Court-hired hackers, in the summer of 2001, were able to break into BIA's trust computer systems without detection, and were even able to create a false Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust account. They gained access to title and record information of Indian landowners and to royalty payment systems that handle millions of dollars in transactions every year.

Relevant Documents:
Daschle Letter (March 19, 2004)

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:
DOI says Internet shutdown affects BIA schools (3/18)
Judge orders DOI shutdown of Internet connections (3/16)
Computer shutdown applies to all DOI systems (3/16)
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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