Court action sending payments to Indian Country
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A federal judge on Monday blasted the Department of Interior for its numerous network security problems, ordering the reconnection of computer systems so that payments to Indian Country can be disbursed in time for the Christmas season.

Following the collapse of an agreement that would have done the same, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth directed the department to work with his court "to get these systems back up and running in a safe and efficient manner." Thousands of beneficiaries to the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust are being deprived of their funds, he said, because the government hasn't done a good job of protecting their assets.

"I think the department's actions in failing to provide adequate computer security have been a disgrace to the United States," Lamberth said. "I think their actions, or lack thereof, have prejudiced the beneficiaries but also prejudiced many innocent and unconnected third parties."

Lamberth had ordered a shutdown of systems with access to individual Indian trust data on December 5, acting on a court opinion drafted by special master Alan Balaran. Balaran and his court-approved hackers were able to break into the Interior and alter, create and destroy trust data.

In response, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles authorized a department wide shutdown that affected everything from e-mail to Internet access. Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb issued a sweeping directive of his own, leading to the disconnect of systems that process payments not just for individual Indians but to tribes.

The mess appeared to be resolved when an order was worked out with the consent of attorneys representing the Indian beneficiaries. The agreement fell through on Friday, after government attorneys tried to get Secretary Gale Norton off the hook for a contempt charge -- a move opposed by the IIM plaintiffs.

The dispute left critical payments to as many as 43,000 individual Indians and thousands of tribes in danger of being delayed, if made at all, during the shutdown. But with Lamberth's order in place, the government can start turning on the relevant systems under Balaran's supervision.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, isn't waiting for that to happen, said a spokesperson. After employees spent all weekend working around the shutdown, about 6,200 general assistance checks were processed manually using backup methods and with the help of a tribe in South Dakota, said Nedra Darling.

"The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe stepped forward and said 'Let's help,'", said Darling. "They are going to process [checks] and get them to our agencies so people can pick them up."

Darling didn't have a dollar amount of the checks but said about 4,600 of them are going to tribes in the Great Plains region. Tribes are using the money for foster care, nursing homes and other services, she said.

The BIA doesn't yet know when it will have IIM systems such as the Integrated Records Management System (IRMS) back up and running, noted Darling. Under Lamberth's order, the Interior has to provide a plan 72 hours in advance of reconnecting a system and Balaran must sign off on it.

Griles and Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason have been working on putting the necessary systems online, said a government attorney.

Yesterday's order was approved over the objections of the IIM plaintiffs, who wanted Lamberth to agree to a preliminary injunction to force the Interior to make the payments. Chris Kohn of the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C., called the offer "hopelessly unrealistic" and "poorly defined."

The injunction, though, is still on the table and Lamberth gave the government until January to respond to it. In the interim, yesterday's order will be a substitute for the December 5 temporary restraining order.

Get the Order:

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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