Letters to the editor

Interior IT ?Not Dumb, Just Broke'

As the former National Park Service information technology manager (from 1989 to 2000), I have become increasingly chagrined about the IT problems at the Interior Department and the quote from a lawyer that you printed in "The great divide" in your Feb. 4 issue: "[Interior's IT officials] just don't know what the hell they're doing."

I regard that comment as a blot on the record of the fine IT professionals I worked with during my tenure at Interior. Good IT, like a good legal defense, is built on the back of money. I spent more than 10 years telling people, "We were not dumb; we were just broke."

Well-worn charts I prepared in the 1990s showed Interior as having the lowest annual IT funding of all the major Cabinet agencies. Over the years, this cumulative IT funding gap would be in the billions. I have not seen any insight from your publication on the rot that this type of funding gap could cause at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) or NPS during a 20- or 30-year period.

I also spent 12 years at the Environmental Protection Agency. It is about the same size as NPS in terms of staff, but it is far smaller in regard to infrastructure. However, the EPA had an IT budget about 10 times larger than NPS. I made an annual request for an IT security program throughout the 1990s but could never get it funded. The choice we had was security and little network or a network and little security.

Most of the problems discussed in "The great divide" are little more than symptoms of the long-term chronic underfunding of Interior IT-related processes.

Your articles also put some emphasis on the Interior chief information officer, giving the impression that there is some meas.ure of line IT control from that position. In reality, each bureau's IT func.tion and major Interior IT function (accounting, payroll, mainframe management) operate without much central control. The Interior CIO had almost no line budget and very few technical resources.

Regarding the specific Interior network problem: In the 1990s, a General Accounting Office report on telecommunications in the Agriculture Department pointed to potential IT savings if independent bureau networks were consolidated at the department level. Interior was also caught up in the pressure of this report.

However, Agriculture had a tradition of having much larger department-level IT functions. At Interior, the tradition was to have a bureau provide departmentwide operational IT functions. In that context, the existing U.S. Geo.logical Survey network and the large circuits that connected the USGS sites became the core Interior network backbone. At NPS, the parks' small tail circuits connected to this backbone.

In the late 1980s, BIA had a completely separate network, but it was merged into this Interior network process to reduce potential "duplicate circuit" problems. Merging the networks of bureaus that have very different missions can be very difficult. For example, bureaus such as NPS and USGS need wide open networks to make sure that any citizen can access information about, for example, our great national parks. But a bureau such as BIA with trust fund responsibilities would want a very secure network.

However — going back to the severe IT funding limitations — to create any type of consolidated network design, compromises were made that probably led to vulnerabilities that caused the Interior network to be shut down.

As the popularity of the NPS Web site grew, I became very concerned about potential network vulnerabilities caused by the IT funding shortfalls and the inherent mission differences of NPS' open systems and the BIA-type secure systems running on the open Interior network.

During the "Y2K fix era," NPS received some additional IT funding. We installed state-of-the-art firewall and intrusion-detection equipment in front of the primary NPS Web servers and set up the primary circuit to these servers and a Domain Name System so they could be what I called "lifeboated" or isolated from the Interior network if there was some form of catastrophic failure.

During the 1990s, we also maintained telephone dial-up connections to the mainframes for payroll input backup that was also separate from the Interior IP network.

I left Interior before the new administration came in, so I don't know the technical, political or legal reasons why its network and popular Web sites are still down.

However, I do know that if Interior IT had been funded at the same level as the other large Cabinet-level agencies, the network would have looked very different to the judge today.

Donald Thie Woodbridge, Va.

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