Interior holding back security documents
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The Department of Interior has been withholding documents regarding the security of its information technology systems despite numerous requests from a federal court, according to correspondence made public in recent weeks.

On a number of occasions, the department and its attorneys have failed to turn over e-mail, memos and other records requested by a court appointed investigator. In one letter to a Department of Justice official, special master Alan Balaran, who has been looking into the issue for nearly a year, said only recently have relevant documents come into his possession.

"I am concerned that similarly responsive documents may have been withheld," he wrote on March 28.

Another letter reiterates a long-standing request for information about a move of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' computer networking center from New Mexico to suburban Washington, D.C. The highly controversial transfer, which department officials at the time pitched as the solution to its security vulnerabilities, occurred nearly two years ago but "copies of ALL" documents have yet to be produced, Balaran wrote the following day.

With the department still emerging from a court-induced computer shutdown, which enters its fourth month this week, Balaran's repeated pleas come a year after a former BIA computer official said computer systems housing the assets of 300,000 American Indians were rife with problems. "I don't like running a network that can be breached by a high school kid." Dom Nessi told Government Executive News on April 1.

By a number of accounts, many of the weaknesses have been addressed in some way or another. The department has been given permission to restart two computer systems needed to process $500 million in annual oil, gas, leasing, timber and other payments to individual Indian beneficiaries.

But Balaran's requests, which sound desperate at times and threatening at others, highlight a problem neither the Bush nor Clinton administrations have been able to overcome. Clinton officials were held in contempt for failing to produce documents relevant to the Indian trust class action and their successors don't appear to fare any better.

The issue has drawn the ire of the federal judge overseeing the debacle. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who sanctioned the government last week for stalling on a different part of the case, has openly questioned the Interior's commitment, especially when compared to the Department of Treasury, whose response to a Congressional report on computer security was markedly different.

"They did seem to have the capability and ability to move very quickly," said Lamberth last month. "That doesn't seem to happen at the Interior."

Department officials did not return calls requesting comment on the delayed production of documents. Only recently have they acknowledged the inadequacy of their systems.

Last year, during the height of Balaran's investigation which led to the shutdown, the message was different as officials downplayed problems privately and publicly. In a June letter responding to a General Accounting Office audit, Bob Lamb, a senior budget official, said Congressional investigators needn't worry about weaknesses because most were already fixed.

Balaran was never told about the report or the letter.

Related Correspondence:
March 20 | March 25 | March 28 | March 29

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

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