Interior Web connections restored, but court dispute lingers

A federal appeals court last week allowed the Interior Department to restore Internet connections severed earlier this month in an ongoing dispute over the adequacy of security for Native Americans' electronic financial records.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on March 24 granted an emergency request to reconnect the computers. A district court order forcing employees to work off-line until Interior resolved computer security issues "critically impaired" the department's ability to conduct day-to-day business transactions, Justice Department lawyers filing the request argued.

"In an age in which Internet communication has become as integral as the telephone, the district court has required a cabinet agency to eliminate its electronic connections to the world," the Justice lawyers stated. "No provision of law vests the district court with that authority."

Without access to the Web, the Interior Department cannot perform the "most basic agency functions, including procurement, financial management and hiring," the Justice lawyers said. In addition, the order required Interior to take off-line information that was "accessed daily by thousands of members of the public."

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on March 15 ordered the department to cut off Web access for all workers except those at the National Park Service, the Office of Policy, Management and Budget, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Under the order, Interior could leave connected computer systems "essential for protection against fires or other threats to life or property."

In his order, Lamberth explained that he is concerned that Interior no longer allows a court-appointed monitor to oversee efforts to secure electronic records of Native Americans' trust fund accounts.

The department agreed to use a monitor in December 2001, after the court first expressed concern over the security of computer records. But Interior officials ended that relationship in July 2003, asking the court to let agency managers "self-monitor" and report progress at improving security.

That proposal is not acceptable, Lamberth said in his ruling. Outside evaluators have found Interior's IT security "woeful," he said.

But Interior Department officials blasted Lamberth's order, arguing the judge lacks a justification for cutting off Web connections for computers not housing Native American trust fund records. The order was therefore unnecessary and not based on "any new evidence that the security of [the trust fund records] had been compromised or was in immediate jeopardy," the Justice lawyers reasoned.

In the request to restore service, the Justice lawyers noted that only 6,600 or so of the Interior Department's 100,000 computers store information related to the Indian Trust Fund. About 5,500 of the computers with Native American financial data have been disconnected from the Internet for more than two years.

Those computers remain disconnected, according to an Interior Department spokesman.

The appeals court ruling allowing the restoration of Interior Web connections is a temporary fix, giving the judges an opportunity to consider the merits of a request to suspend Lamberth's order until the court has ruled on a challenge of the order.

The Interior Department is working with Justice on that appeal, and will present an opening brief by April 6. The department will "aggressively" pursue a permanent reversal of Lamberth's order, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in a statement last week.

Lamberth's mid-March order marks the third time he has forced Interior to cut Web connections because he is not convinced the department has adequately secured electronic records of Native Americans' trust fund accounts.

The Indian trust accounts are the focus of an ongoing lawsuit between Native American groups and Interior, which manages the accounts. Groups pay Interior to use Indian lands for oil, gas and mineral extraction, as well as other activities, and Interior then distributes money to Native Americans through trust accounts. Native American groups alleged in the lawsuit that Interior has mismanaged the accounts for decades and, consequently, owes them billions of dollars.

Lamberth first ordered the Interior Department to sever its Internet connections in December 2001. That order halted Web service for almost all of the department's workers and left the public unable to access information about national parks and public lands.

Interior restored most Internet connections during the first half of 2002 after Special Master Alan Balaran, a court-appointed monitor, verified that Native American records were not at risk of a security breach. Several offices, most notably the Bureau of Indian Affairs, never received notice of Balaran's approval and remained off-line.

The Internet blackout in 2001 came after Government Executive reported that the Indian Affairs' chief information officer had no confidence in the bureau's computer security. (See "Trail of Troubles," April 2001 Federal Performance Report) "I don't like running a network that can be breached by a high school kid," BIA Chief Information Officer Dom Nessi told Government Executive at the time.

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