FROM THE ARCHIVE

Judge orders Interior to cut Internet access

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THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2001

A federal judge on Wednesday evening threatened yet again to hold Secretary of Interior Gale Norton in contempt as he ordered her department to "immediately" disconnect from the Internet every single computer, server and system that has access to individual Indian trust data.

In a sweeping action with far-reaching but unclear ramifications, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth granted the emergency request, which was brought on behalf of 300,000 American Indians whose assets are housed on a computer infrastructure so easily penetrable that a court investigator and his team of security experts were able to break in and repeatedly access, modify and even create trust data -- all without raising a response from the government.

Agreeing with attorneys representing Indian beneficiaries who argued that the entire system must be shut down or risk "irreparable harm," Lamberth made his move after a long and grueling day of haggling between his court and the Interior. He convened a public hearing in the morning but stopped the proceedings when one of Norton's attorneys made a startling announcement.

"Today, Interior has directed its major systems that deal with the trust related data to disconnect from the Internet," said Matt Fader, a Department of Justice attorney.

The revelation at first convinced Lamberth he shouldn't take action. Based on the directive, which was claimed to have been issued by Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason sometime after 8 a.m. but before 10 a.m., he told the Interior to come back on Friday with a status update.

That would have given the Interior more time to evaluate how pulling the plug would affect its trust responsibilities, something it was in the "preliminary stages" of doing, noted Fader. According to Interior officials, "[i]ndications are that it might not create a substantial disruption," he said.

But further conversations with Norton's defense team clearly wore Lamberth's patience thin. Signs showed when Fader denied a scathing investigation detailing numerous security breaches -- unsealed on Tuesday -- presented "evidence" of any "manipulation or deletion" of trust fund data.

"You donít expect a thief to leave a calling card, do you?" Lamberth asked Fader. "I donít understand your argument."

The grilling continued when Fader was summoned to court to explain whether the Interior intended to cut Internet service not just to the computer systems that house trust data -- such as the $40 million Trust Asset Accounting and Management System (TAAMS) verging on collapse -- but to personal computers used by Interior employees and outside contractors who have access to sensitive information such as land ownership and lease payments.

Fader responded that he didn't know what was meant by such basic terms as "individual trust data" and "computer," to which Lamberth shot back: "I donít believe a word youíre saying now."

"Youíre just ruining your credibility talking to me that way."

Attorneys for the account holders were extremely pleased by Lamberth's decision. In the morning, Dennis Gingold said the Interior's voluntary shutdown was a "positive" step but, like Lamberth, he grew tired of what he called the government's "broken promises."

"Our clients cannot afford any more of the incompetence of the Department of the Interior," Gingold said. "We canít afford it."

Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund said he hoped the fiasco would provide further evidence of Norton's negligence when a contempt trial begins on Monday. By not reporting the numerous security problems, he said the Interior has breached its obligations to Indian beneficiaries once again.

The Interior did not return repeated calls requesting comment. Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, also facing contempt charges, were both traveling outside of Washington, D.C., when the proceedings were taking place.

Coupled with the judge's action were criticisms from members of Congress about the security failures. "The GAO told us five years ago that the fund was in shambles," said Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah,) chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian affairs.

"Now we learn that a computer security system deployed in 1999 is virtually worthless," he said.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the committee's ranking member added: "Special Master Alan Balaran's thorough report detailing the trust fund computer security breaches just further demonstrates why any changes to trust fund management must be done deliberately and openly with tribal consultation throughout the process."

Hansen's committee has scheduled an oversight hearing into the debacle on February 6, 2002. Government witnesses include McCaleb, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, Special Trustee Thomas Slonaker and Ross Swimmer, the recently appointed director of the Office of Indian Trust Transition.

Tribal leaders will also be invited.

Get the Order:
TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER (12/5)

Get the Report:
Report and Recommendations of the Special Master Regarding the Security of Trust Data at the Department of the Interior (12/4)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://indiantrust.doi.gov
Office of the Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Trust Management Improvement Project - http://www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

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