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Cobell
Judge gives Interior approval to get back online


More than six years after being knocked offline as part of the contentious Indian trust fund lawsuit, the Interior Department was given approval to reconnect all of its systems to the Internet on Wednesday.

Judge Royce Lamberth, who has been removed from the case, ordered the disconnect in December 2001. A court investigator found that billions of dollars in Indian trust funds were at risk to computer hacking.

Since then, most of Interior's agencies, offices and bureaus were given permission to get back online after they demonstrated their systems were secure. But there were some key holdouts -- namely the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Special Trustee, the two agencies that deal most with Indian Country.

Judge James Robertson, who inherited the case in December 2006, was initially reluctant to order the systems back online. As he considered the Bush administration's request to reconnect yesterday, he was concerned that Interior hadn't shown that the BIA, OST and the remaining entities were secure.

"On May 14, 2007, I noted that we were not 'working on a clean slate,' and denied the motion to vacate the consent order because the government had not 'made the requisite showing that [it had] any security,'" Robertson wrote in a seven-page order yesterday. The consent order that covered the disconnect was issued in December 2001 at Interior's request.

But he said it was "clear" that a ruling from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals limited judicial oversight of information technology matters. Concluding that it wasn't his role to "weigh IT security risks" at the department, he said sworn declarations submitted by government officials indicate Interior has complied with federal law.

"The Congressional and Inspector General reports indicating that the Interior department, overall, continues to receive failing grades on its IT report card are troubling, but I have no authority to act in response to them, nor do I have any colorable suggestion that the declarations before me ... were made in bad faith." Robertson wrote.

Robertson was referring to a 2007 report from Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that gave Interior an "F" for its compliance with a federal IT law passed in 2002, after the disconnect. Experts hired by the department's Inspector General has been able to break into computer systems even after the Bush administration spent more than $100 million in upgrades.

The Cobell plaintiffs opposed the reconnect of the remaining Interior entities. They wanted Robertson to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the systems were secure but the judge said that wasn't necessary in light of the D.C. Circuit ruling and the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002.

The order affects the BIA, OST, the Office of Historical Trust Accounting, the Office of Hearing and Appeals and the Office of the Solicitor.

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