FROM THE ARCHIVE

GAO: Billions at risk including Indian trust

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FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2002

A Congressional audit has found serious information technology weaknesses at another government agency in charge of Indian trust funds, raising new doubts about the same types of security problems that have crippled the Department of Interior.

More than three years after the first probe was conducted into the computer systems at the Department of Treasury unit which collects and disburses trillions of dollars in federal and Indian funds, the General Accounting Office has determined that numerous problems still exist. While about half of the deficiencies at the Financial Management Service (FMS) have been addressed, investigators said they have continued to find new vulnerabilities that place the money at "significant risk."

"FMS’s overall security control environment continues to be ineffective in identifying, deterring, and responding to computer control weaknesses promptly," the GAO wrote in a report made public last week.

"Consequently, billions of dollars of payments and collections are at significant risk of loss or fraud, sensitive data are at risk of inappropriate disclosure, and critical computer-based operations are vulnerable to serious disruptions," warned the report.

After being named, along with the Interior, as a defendant in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) class action five years ago, the Treasury was subsequently found in breach of trust to more than 300,000 Indian beneficiaries throughout the country. The failure to produce records and the destruction of those same records have landed the department in trouble and in contempt.

But with Secretary of Interior Gale Norton being trotted out next week to answer to a federal judge, the GAO report raises new questions about the security of more than $400 million in individual assets handled annually by both departments. While U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth has not acted against the Treasury for its known problems, conclusions Congressional auditors made are chillingly similar to those made in a scathing report which led to the Interior shutdown.

"The overriding reason that computer control problems at FMS continued to exist," the GAO wrote, "is that FMS does not have an effective entity-wide computer security management program."

The report continued: "FMS has not yet developed a detailed plan that describes the remedial actions; resources (physical, human capital, and fiscal); target dates; and responsible agency officials needed to correct the shortcomings of its security program."

Just this week, Norton admitted her department is still the "initial" stages of preparing a security program. She told Congress on Wednesday that it will cost between $65 million and $70 million to come into compliance with federal computer standards.

At the same time, her legal team failed to raise any challenges to special master Alan Balaran's information technology report. For this reason, Lamberth said the burden was on her to avoid being sanctioned for what Balaran called a "disgraceful legacy."

As for the Treasury, FMS Commissioner Richard Gregg complained that the GAO audit didn't present an "accurate picture" of his agency because he said it was based on data "more than one year old." But like Bob Lamb, an Interior budget official who said similar problems were being corrected under his watch, Gregg said the FMS has made "great strides in eliminating the vulnerabilities."

Get the Report:
Financial Management Service: Significant Weaknesses in Computer Controls Continue GAO-02-317 (January 31, 2002)

Previous GAO Audits:
FMS Audit: Fiscal Year 1999 | FMS Audit: Fiscal Year 1998

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://130.94.214.68/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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