December 14, 2001Interior Department employees have been working without Internet or external e-mail access for more than a week, after a U.S. District Court ordered the agency to take its computers offline. On Dec. 5, Judge Royce C. Lamberth told the department to disconnect from the Internet all "information technology systems" that have access to Indian trust data managed by Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. BIA oversees about 300,000 individual trust accounts and sends checks to Indian beneficiaries, who rely on the money to pay for basic necessities. The agency has been dogged for years by allegations it has mismanaged the system. Lamberth's order in the case of Cobell v. Norton has left most Interior employees unable to use the Internet or send and receive e-mail to addresses outside the agency. Employees can still send e-mail to one another. All contractors working within the agency have had to disconnect their computers and systems as well. Lamberth was prompted to take action by a report from Court-appointed Special Master Alan Balaran, which said that Interior's information system wasn't secure. Balaran, who is overseeing the litigation, hired a hacker to access the Indian trust data and manipulate account information, setting up false accounts and modifying existing ones. The hacker reportedly found the system easy to penetrate and unprotected by any security systems. Interior officials are working to make all connections to Indian trust data more secure, said agency spokesman John Wright. "We are complying with the judge's orders," he said. "We have to ensure that our system is secure and protects the data, [but] we're not where we need to be yet." Wright said he didn't know what standard Lamberth plans to use to decide whether security on the site is up to snuff. Court officials reached in Lamberth's chambers Thursday afternoon said the judge had no comment on the matter. Lamberth has been continually frustrated with Interior officials' feet dragging and inability to effectively control the Indian trust system. In 1999, the judge held former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Assistant Secretary for Indian affairs Kevin Gover and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt of court for not producing records related to the Cobell case. Wright said the loss of communications that employees have come to take for granted has forced people to get more "creative" performing their jobs. "We've been working with some inconveniences, but [we're] working around them," he said. But at least one Interior employee saw things in far more drastic terms. "It's like sitting in a cave," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity and bemoaning the fact that all official business must now be conducted by telephone and fax. In some cases, she said, employees have worked from home in order to access the Internet and e-mail and have asked non-Interior colleagues or associates to go online for them to retrieve information. The employee added that "bounce back" messages, replies to senders of e-mail that notify them the message didn't reach its intended recipient, are taking days to show up in senders' inboxes. The employee also expressed concern that other Interior bureaus and services are being unduly punished for the shortcomings of other areas of the system. "We feel we have worked diligently in terms of the firewall protection that has been put up for us," she said in reference to her own division's security efforts. Wright said he doesn't believe that the communications shutdown has affected Interior's ability to collect royalty payments on the vast array of natural resources it manages, but if the blackout continues, he said, that could all change.
December 14, 2001