FROM THE ARCHIVE

From the top a gamble in trust

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FRIDAY, DECEMBER 7, 2001

. . .

It was Wednesday morning, around 10:00 a.m. Mountain Standard Time. The agency superintendent was sitting in a meeting with more than a dozen tribal leaders when the call from Washington, D.C., came through.

It was from Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, the superintendent soon discovered. The call was regarding computer security.

Confronted with a scathing report detailing vulnerabilities to the assets of 300,000 American Indians and a federal judge on the verge of taking the matter into his hands, the top officials -- with approval from Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason -- were announcing they had taken a dramatic step of their own.

They ordered an internal disconnect from the Internet of "major systems that deal with the trust related data," a government attorney was simultaneously telling the judge two time zones away.

Informed of the directive once the call ended, the superintendent started mentally figuring out how to comply with it. "At that time, about the 11 o'clock hour, I called my office," he recalled, "and said, 'We have orders here to shut down information technology systems.'"

Knowing exactly how many Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts are in his purview, the official made the 90-minute drive back to his homebase. He was met there with another high-level call and was told to assess how his technologies -- leasing systems, contract systems, the Integrated Records Management System and even the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System -- would be affected by the disconnect.

He soon began to wonder exactly what was going on. "This administrative stuff is going to affect us," he thought as travel, payroll and payments to tribes entered his mind.

But at least, he thought to himself, "We weren't ordered to shut down."

. . .

It was Wednesday afternoon, around 4:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. A federal judge was sending attorneys representing 300,000 Indian beneficiaries and attorneys for the Department of Interior home for the day.

"Well, in light of the Secretary's action of directing already that all major systems be disconnected from the Internet if they provide access to individual Indian trust data, I will continue this hearing," said U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. "I won't say anything more than that now."

A little over an hour later, Lamberth changed his mind and called the lawyers back to his court. All systems and computers with access to individual Indian trust data must be removed from the Internet, he ordered.

. . .

It was Thursday morning, around 9:30 a.m. Mountain Standard Time. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton was in Denver, Colorado, addressing about 300 tribal leaders at a national Indian energy summit.

"According to BIA, unemployment on and near Indian lands is 43 percent -- compared to the national average of 5.4 percent," said the Secretary. "Another 33 percent, living on or near Indian lands, are earning below poverty level wages."

"This is unacceptable."

"And it compels us to explore ways to change the conditions that produced them."

. . .

It was Thursday morning, also around 9:30 a.m., also Mountain Standard Time. The superintendent returned to work and saw the memo. Order to Immediately Disconnect Computers, it read. It was signed by Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb.

It was the order to shut down.

Nevertheless, the official had reservations about following it. It called for confiscation of modems. Removal of all remote access points. Potential firing of any employee who violated the order.

"It just doesn't make sense," he thought.

Ninety minutes down the road, a senior official had the same inklings. He was on the horn with other regional officers and they were bombarding their Washington, D.C., central office bureaucrat with questions.

Well what does that mean, to shut down access? Will we get money? Will we get money on time? Will we get oil and gas distribution dollars on time?

"Frankly," the official recalled of the conference call, "the answer was no."

"No, you won't."

. . .

"Finally, many of you are interested in the Interior Department's proposed initiative to improve and reform the Indian trust system," said the Secretary.

"We're actively consulting with tribes and asking: Is the trust system working now? Working together, how can we improve it? What are your ideas and suggestions about the proposed initiative to improve Indian trust programs?"

"We need your input and suggestions to make trust reform a reality. We have been actively listening to tribes, and gaining their insight."

. . .

Still on the conference call, the regional official was pressing the central office bureaucrat with questions.

"I'm not a computer specialist, but I did ask the question," he said.

Can't we close down BIANET's "node" to the Internet and leave our internal systems -- law enforcement, education trust services, natural resource management, social services -- up and running?

"And the answer was no."

. . .

"Today, I'm announcing our schedule for seven consultation sessions," said the Secretary.

"The first session is December 13 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We will then listen to tribes with meetings in Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Rapid City, San Diego and Anchorage. Our last scheduled consultation meeting is set for February 1 in Washington, D.C."

"We have also launched a new web site at www.indiantrust.doi.gov that will provide updated information on our reform initiative."

. . .

It was Thursday afternoon, 2:30 p.m., Mountain Standard Time. The regional officials were surveying their operations:

"THE PLUG IS PULLED ON THE INTERNET."

"A LOT OF TRIBES ARE UPSET."

"WE PULLED THE PLUG ON EVERYTHING TODAY."

"TODAY, WE WERE GIVEN THE DIRECTIVE AND WE DID IT."

"NOW WE ARE GOING TO FACE THE CONSEQUENCES AT THE LOCAL LEVEL."

. . .

It's Friday morning. www.indiantrust.doi.gov is still down.

And so is the BIA.

Ed. Note: All BIA officials and employees spoke to Indianz.Com only on the condition of anonymity.

. . .

Today on Indianz.Com:
DOI Shutdown: 'We're Hurting Tribes' (12/7)

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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