Lawyers argue over Indian Trust

On the same day that the National Museum of the American Indian opened to the public, both sides in a long-running argument over the federal government's stewardship of the Indian Trust framed the central issue in the dispute: Did a judge overstep his bounds in disconnecting the Interior Department's computers?

On Sept. 21, a debate about the 8-year-old Cobell v. Norton lawsuit involving crucial records that track the amount of money the government owes Native Americans for Indian lands was held at American University's Washington College of Law. Richard Pierce, a law professor at the George Washington University, whose appeal to have Judge Royce Lamberth removed from the case was recently rejected, debated Keith Harper, the plaintiff's counsel in the lawsuit.

The event was timed to correspond with the opening of the museum.

In 2001, Lamberth ordered Interior officials to make sure that all computers that could access Indian Trust data were disconnected from the Internet. Internet access has since returned to the department, following a federal appeals court ruling that blocked Lamberth's decision to disconnect most of the agency.

In a controversial article in American's Administrative Law Review this year, Pierce described Lamberth's actions as a "reign of terror" at Interior, which oversees the Indian Trust.

In this week's debate, Harper took a harsh stance against Pierce's article. "It is not shoddy," said Harper, who maintained that Lamberth did the right thing. "It aspires to shoddiness."

But all computers are vulnerable to hacking, Pierce said, adding that Lamberth should not have shut down all computers. "Imagine if someone shut American University's law school computers down for four years," Pierce said. Many of Interior's computers have been disconnected for years, he added.

In response to statements that a judge's employee was able to hack into the system, Pierce said, "Disconnecting the computers is the same as disconnecting all the SunTrust [Banks Inc.] computers because of one hack attack."

Harper explained this particular information technology system's lack of accountability like this: "The Department of Interior's [computers do not] have audit trails....a 12-year-old hacker could break into the system." A hacker could break into the system without leaving any trace behind, he added.

After the debate, Harper said the department's computer system is so interconnected that the only means to ensure data safety is to shut down all the computers, and something must be done soon. Because there is a stay on Lamberth's order, "we're in a place where individuals' reparations for properties are at risk every day," Harper said. "No other trustee would ever allow their trust system to be so vulnerable to attacks."

On March 25, the Federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an emergency administrative stay that temporarily suspends Lamberth's shutdown order. Interior officials requested the injunction following his March 15 ruling.

Lamberth's order was the third such court ruling since 2001, when investigators determined that hackers could easily break into Indian trust funds and pillage accounts worth millions of dollars. The shutdown affected about 50,000 students attending 180 schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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