Cason takes stand in Cobell trust fund hearing

Occasionally defiant and frequently exasperated, associate deputy Interior secretary Jim Cason took the stand in the Cobell v. Norton case on Tuesday to defend the Bush administration's handling of the Indian trust.

On day 51 of a complex evidentiary hearing, Cason was cross-examined for several hours about the status of the Interior Department's computer systems. It was his second full day on the stand and his demeanor made it quite clear he would have rather been elsewhere.

But as the administration's point man on the Indian trust, Cason plays a critical role in the case. More than anyone else at Interior, his efforts to fix the department's security woes will help determine how U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth rules.

According to Cason, great strides have been made over the past four years thanks to a $100 million-plus investment. He previously boasted to the court that the department's computer network is "basically bulletproof" and that the number of vulnerabilities has been reduced to "close to zero."

"I think we made substantial progress," he reiterated yesterday.

Yet there were some glaring failures, the acknowledged. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, never segregated its Indian trust data from non-trust data, a centerpiece of the department's proposal.

"It appears it didn't get done," Cason testified.

And the agency, whose web sites had to be shut down in April in response to major security holes uncovered by computer security experts, never installed a network DMZ, or demilitarized zone, that would have potentially shielded sensitive data from hackers.

"It was very irritating" to discover the omission, Cason said.

Cason's own claims were also called into question repeatedly during the cross-examination. He was confronted with internal documents showing that the number of security vulnerabilities was actually more than 100 at the time he stated, under oath, that they were "close to zero."

Cason stood by his statement when pressed to justify it. The vulnerabilities were found in computer networks for Bureau of Indian Affairs education and the U.S. Geological Survey, "neither of which are regarded as trust agencies," he testified.

"If you look at the ones that are trust agencies, we are close to zero," he said.

Cason then said he based his statement on the status of the network back in December 2001, when all systems were disconnected from the Internet. "Everything is relative for what we have to do," he told the court. "Against the backdrop ... I think this is pretty adequate."

"We started at almost 1,000 vulnerabilities," he noted.

But the inquiry clearly irked Cason, who often peppered his responses with the phrase "As I explained several times." When presented with more figures that showed the number of vulnerabilities remained well above 100, he wondered why anyone would question his original statement.

"I don't think it's productive to go through this process. We were on a downward trend for this period," he said. "I don't know why it's important. The numbers are what they are. Let's move on."

Cason is set to return to the stand today and is one of the Bush administration's last witnesses. Throughout the hearing, the Department of Justice has called more than 20 witnesses to bolster its stance that the computer systems are safe from hackers.

Once the government finishes its case, the Cobell plaintiffs, who want the systems disconnected from the Internet, will get a chance to make a rebuttal. The proceedings could last a couple more weeks before the trial ends.

Information technology security has been a big part of the case since November 2001, when a court official released a report detailing how billions of dollars in Indian trust funds could be easily accessed from the Internet.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled that the Interior Department has a fiduciary obligation to protect the computer data and the computer systems of the Indian trust. "It is indisputable that the Secretary has current and prospective trust management duties that necessitate maintaining secure IT systems in order to render accurate accountings now and in the future," the court said in December 2004.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -