Interior missing online training

Interior Department employees have lost valuable training time because of a temporary restraining order in a long-running court case that disconnected most of the agency's computers from the Internet this month, the Interior official in charge of training said Dec. 18.

Meanwhile, Interior has been allowed to put some parts of its computer systems back online in order to issue checks for some of the 43,000 beneficiaries of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), department spokesman John Wright said.

But e-mail continues to be down throughout Interior's offices, and the agency is still barred from connecting to the Internet, Wright added. In addition, Interior has been forced to process most of its employees' paychecks by hand. Interior's information technology systems have been disconnected from the Internet since Dec. 6, a day after U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the move to protect TAAMS data collected and maintained by the agency as part of its management of 54 million acres of Indian land it holds in trust. The disconnection order "has disrupted our operations," Bob Veltkamp, director of the online learning center for the Department of the Interior University said at an e-learning conference in Washington, D.C. "This is the prime time of the year for online training because the holidays are sort of a 'down time' for our employees and they have extra time to work on training modules."

On Dec. 17, Lamberth issued an order allowing Interior to restart computer systems that don't connect to Indian trust fund data, but only with the approval of Special Master Alan Balaran, whom Lamberth appointed earlier this year to investigate potential security breaches in the TAAMS system.

Lack of access to e-mail and computer systems that normally handle Interior's payroll automatically has "made us more creative in getting our work done," Wright said. Payroll data is being keyed in by hand in many departments, but some employees have noted that they've had to fill out time sheets by hand.

While the main Interior Web site is all but inactive, the U.S. Geological Survey and National Interagency Fire Center Web sites are working. After an emergency hearing Dec. 8, Lamberth agreed to allow Interior to reconnect those two sites to the Internet. The plaintiffs in the case filed their class-action suit five years ago seeking to straighten out the BIA's management of the trust funds. They charge BIA has been so neglectful that it is now impossible for landowners and their descendants to determine how much money is in their accounts.

After his appointment, Balaran -- with Lamberth's OK -- hired computer security firm Predictive Systems Inc. to test the TAAMS system. A Predictive Systems team hacked into Interior computer servers and accessed the BIA networks in late June.

When Interior officials questioned the company's findings, Balaran scheduled another attack in late August. In the second test, the Predictive team broke into Interior's systems and created an account in Balaran's name.

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