Void in Indian trust leadership filled
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Reversing a proposed out-of-state move, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has chosen a locally-based chief information officer to oversee its troubled computer and Indian trust systems.

Brian Burns will start his new job next week, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb announced in an interview yesterday. "He actually came to us," he said.

Heartily welcoming Burns to the BIA, McCaleb was pleased with the selection, which comes after several months of searches that were described as fruitless recently by a senior department official and nearly a year after former CIO Dom Nessi left unexpectedly. "It's really good news," said McCaleb.

Judging by the new official's credentials, the enthusiasm was well-placed. In addition to having 17 years of direct experience in commercial and federal information technology issues, Burns was most recently the deputy CIO at the Department of Health and Human Services, a post he took in August 1999.

There, Burns' responsibilities included the Indian Health Service, a particularly relevant challenge to his new post. He worked on improving the telecommunications infrastructure in Indian Country, an obstacle he will face with the BIA's far-flung operations.

The most daunting aspect, of course, will be ensuring that trust assets belonging to hundreds of tribes and 300,000 American Indians are adequately protected. A court investigator last year uncovered gaping holes in the Department of Interior's IT systems, leading a federal judge to order them disconnected from the Internet.

Burns' selection represents a shift in policy in response to that critical problem. Prior to special master Alan Balaran's November report, the BIA intended to move the CIO post to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The addition of Burns also comes amid a flurry of activity within the Interior. Tribal leaders and department officials are moving to finalize a reorganization of Indian trust management in order to correct long-standing failures.

"It's a very rigorous schedule that the tribal leaders set for themselves," McCaleb acknowledged.

Part of that effort includes filling the Interior's leadership void. Two security-related positions remain officially vacant.

Burns replaces Debbie Clark, who was named acting CIO after Nessi left the post last year amid the investigation into Indian trust security. It was his candid revelation in a trade publication that the BIA's computer systems "can be breached by a high school" that spurred the probe, which continues today.

The effects of the shutdown also linger, with the BIA being one of the few entities without network capabilities. While its major trust systems have been restarted, 10,000 employees remain without e-mail, Internet access and other services.

Coupled with ongoing problems at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the situation has crippled many in Indian Country. The department has yet to fully pay individual account holders for missed royalties, and some Navajo tribal members are going without.

Nessi now holds the position of CIO at the National Park Service.

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

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