Many Interior employees still stuck offline

More than 80 percent of the Interior Department's computers are back online after a three-month shutdown of Internet access. But workers at the department's headquarters and in three major agencies are still stuck with only telephones, fax machines and the post office to communicate with the outside world.

About 86,000 of the department's 109,000 servers, laptops, personal computers and other computers are back online, according to an Interior Department spokeswoman. The National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and most other Interior bureaus have been reconnected to the Internet, but the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Minerals Management Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Interior's headquarters are still trying to gain the confidence of a court-appointed special master that their computer systems are secure enough to allow them back online.

Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the shutdown on Dec. 5, after Special Master Alan Balaran issued a report detailing the successful attempt of a hired hacker to break into the Bureau of Indian Affairs' computer systems and make changes to individual Indian trust account data. Because Interior's systems are highly interconnected, Interior officials pulled all of its computers off the Internet.

The Interior Department manages the trust accounts of thousands of Indians, each month issuing payments totaling millions of dollars for oil and gas drilling, grazing, logging and other uses of Indian land. In an ongoing legal battle, a group of Indians has charged the government with mismanaging those trust accounts for decades. The plaintiffs in the case, Cobell v. Norton, filed a complaint with the court regarding computer security after reading an interview with then-Bureau of Indian Affairs Chief Information Officer Dom Nessi in an April 2001 issue of Government Executive. Nessi described the bureau's poor computer security.

When Lamberth saw how easily Balaran's hacker was able to get into the BIA systems, he ordered the systems shut down.

As a result of the subsequent months-long blackout, the National Park Service's online camping reservations system was out of service, agencies had to delay hiring efforts and procurements were pushed back. Far more troubling, thousands of Native Americans went for months without much-needed payments for the use of their land, forcing tribal governments to provide temporary benefits so people wouldn't have their cars repossessed. In addition, criminal investigations were temporarily suspended because Interior Department law enforcement officers couldn't access key databases such as the FBI's National Criminal Information Center.

Lamberth held a hearing Friday to find out why many Indians still haven't received checks from the department. "I have frankly been dumbfounded that it has taken the amount of time that it has taken to get the Interior checks rolling again," Lamberth said.

Attorneys for the government reported that the issuance of checks to pay for leases other than oil and gas leases were restarted on Jan. 22. The agency has sent out checks totaling $17.9 million since then, the attorneys said. Some of those payments had been delayed because backlogs built up at the offices that issue them. At one office, a key staff person had a death in the family, causing the person to miss work and the backlog to remain, the attorneys said.

The system that governs oil and gas payments, run by the Minerals Management Service, is still offline. On Feb. 22, the department started sending out estimated one-month payments totaling $1.8 million to more than 10,000 account holders, the attorneys said. Lamberth noted that account holders have gone without checks for three months. Lamberth asked the attorneys to submit a progress report next Friday. In the meantime, officials at the offline agency are working with Balaran, the special master, to get approval to go back online. The agencies submit reports to Balaran explaining the state of security on their systems, and then reviewers hired by Balaran verify the reports.

Already back up and running are the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Interagency Fire Center, the Office of Surface Mining, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Office of Aircraft Services and some facilities of the National Business Center.

Employees at the remaining offline agencies are conducting much of their business without the use of their computers. "It slows us down," said Dian Lawhon, a spokeswoman for the Minerals Management Service.

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