FROM THE ARCHIVE

Norton effort 'too little too late' for judge

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WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16, 2002

A federal judge on Tuesday warned Secretary of Interior Gale Norton that her attorneys face an uphill battle protecting her from contempt sanctions for the dismal state of Internet security at the department.

An investigative report detailing numerous breaches to computer systems housing the assets of 300,000 American Indians is "prima facie" evidence against Norton, said U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. The legal burden of proof would therefore be on the government, he said.

Accepting the report, which was authored by special master Alan Balaran, into evidence, Lamberth noted that government attorneys have admitted to its findings by not challenging them. While Norton has hired a computer security firm to fix the problems identified, the effort was not enough to prevent a court-ordered shutdown, he added.

"The court agrees that this was, in fact, a positive step," said Lamberth, "although it was too little, too late."

One of the charges facing Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb is the failure to adequately protect the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust from hackers has been a key issue in the contempt trial against the Bush administration. Last summer, Balaran and Predictive Systems Inc., a computer security firm Norton has since hired, were able to break into the Interior and create, modify and access individual Indian trust data.

Four other charges stem from actions by Clinton officials but include whether Norton and her top aides have provided accurate updates regarding trust reform since taking control of the Interior. Government attorneys have asked that all but the security charge be dropped, a request Lamberth has deferred until he returns to court later this month after an overseas trip.

With Lamberth's action yesterday, however, avoiding sanctions will be more difficult due to the evidence amassed. A contempt finding on the security charge alone could lead to the appointment of a receiver to handle the IIM trust.

Alternatively, Lamberth might assign a judicial officer to specifically oversee information technology at the Interior. Currently, Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason, a political appointee who did not require Senate confirmation, has been overseeing all information technology issues.

Balaran, in his scathing investigation, recommended Lamberth take control but the issue was also put off. Lamberth has scheduled a January 31 status hearing so the government and the plaintiffs can provide an update about the computer security.

"I'm still hopeful within the next few days that it can be worked out," said Lamberth.

Sandra Spooner, an attorney for the civil division at the Department of Justice, acknowledged yesterday an agreement she drafted regarding the reconnection of computer systems has made for a slow-moving process. But she said the priority has been to put individual Indian trust systems back online.

Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the Indian beneficiaries, disputed the suggestion, noting that government attorneys have asked for emergency permission to reconnect earthquake and fire safety systems. The plaintiffs ultimately withdrew from the security consent order when Norton tried to use it to avoid contempt sanctions.

"We haven't seen the same interest in providing the same solution for the disbursement of individual Indian money checks," he said. "Two more weeks, two more months, when is this [fix] going to happen?"

The plaintiffs have asked Lamberth to force the Interior to send checks to Indian landowners, who haven't been paid since November. Lamberth said yesterday he would wait on the request pending negotiations between the Cason-led team and Balaran.

A status hearing and resumption of trial testimony is set for January 31.

Get IT Reports:
First Status Report (1/15) | Report and Recommendations Regarding the Security of Trust Data (12/4)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

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