Agreement paves way for trust fund payments
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After surviving more than a month without critical funds, thousands of American Indians throughout the country are closer to getting money that has been locked up in a political, legal and technical dispute.

An agreement reached between the Department of Interior and a federal court paves the way for the payments to be made. Special master Alan Balaran, a court officer whose scathing investigation into the government's lack of security protections led to a court-ordered Internet shutdown, gave permission for the department to turn on a computer system that processes checks for Indian landowners on Tuesday.

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb informed tribal leaders and Alaska Natives of the long-awaited development at a consultation session in Alaska yesterday. The approval came after weeks of negotiation between his department and Balaran, whom the Interior voluntarily agreed would play a central role in the correction of major computer holes.

Those problems included numerous vulnerabilities in computer systems that house the assets of 300,000 American Indians. Balaran and computer security experts he hired tested the security of the Integrated Records Management System (IRMS) and found they could easily break into it using a standard Internet connection.

The revelation became a significant issue for U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who ordered the Interior on December 5 to disconnect it and related systems from the Internet. The negative effect was that Indian beneficiaries could not receive their royalty checks, which are processed by IRMS and two other computer systems.

But while assuring Indian Country that getting IRMS up and running was of the highest priority, Interior officials and their lawyers, led by Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason, were unable to convince Balaran they had a handle on the problem. After revising their initial request of December 17, the sides finally settled on a fix to restart IRMS -- without net access.

Just when the department will be able to send checks to Indian beneficiaries who haven't received their money since November is another question. A government attorney told a federal judge last week that IRMS was so backed up that it needed time to work through numerous transactions.

Sandra Spooner of the Department of Justice also said IRMS needs to interface with a computer system operated by the Minerals Management Service in order to checks to be written. However, the MMS system hasn't given approval to be restarted.

Keith Harper, the Native American Rights Fund attorney representing the beneficiaries, said he was pleased that an agreement was made. Although he has received numerous complaints about the shutdown, which he and his colleagues requested, he said the Interior's inability to carry out its trust duties was its own fault.

"They were sending out checks before the Internet was around," Harper said. "It's not like the world started with the Internet. They have to have workarounds."

The lack of computer protections is a major issue in an ongoing contempt trial against Secretary Norton and McCaleb. Lamberth said the burden is on the pair to prove why they shouldn't be held in contempt for failing to protect the assets of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

Lamberth resumes the trial January 30.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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