Interior unplugged

A month after a federal judge in a long-running lawsuit ordered the Interior Department to disconnect computers from the Internet, agency employees are still unplugged.

They are filling out timesheets by hand instead of electronically and communicating the old-fashioned way -- via telephone, fax and the U.S. Postal Service -- because they still can't access e-mail.

Firewalls, or devices to prevent hackers from breaking into Interior's computer systems, were installed over the holidays in Phoenix, Ariz.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Reston, Va., Interior press secretary Mark Pfeifle said. But the court must approve any changes to the agency's systems before they can be reconnected to the Internet — and that approval hasn't been granted yet.

"We're working with our information technology people day and night, burning the midnight oil, to get these systems going and satisfy the court's conditions," Pfeifle said.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the Internet disconnection Dec. 5, 2001 -- the department went off-line a day later -- after he learned that hackers could easily break into the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS). Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs uses the system to collect and maintain data used to manage as much as $10 billion in royalty payments to American Indians that come from farming, drilling and mining on 54 million acres of American Indian land BIA holds in trust.

Despite the loss of most of its internal network connections, Interior has delivered paychecks to its 70,000 employees on time, Pfeifle said.

In contrast, Interior has yet to issue checks to 43,000 TAAMS beneficiaries despite Lamberth's subsequent order allowing Interior to bring certain computer systems back up in order to do so. Similar checks issued in December 2000 totaled almost $15 million, according to Phillip Smith, a spokesman for the plaintiffs in the case.

"The Indian beneficiaries, many of whom are poor, are still waiting for Interior to get its act together," Smith said Jan. 2.

On Dec. 17, Lamberth issued an order allowing Interior to restart computer systems that do not connect to Indian trust fund data, but only with the approval of Special Master Alan Balaran, whom Lamberth appointed in 2001 to investigate potential security breaches in the TAAMS system.

According to Bill Roselius, a computer expert on the staff of Interior Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, agency officials are negotiating with Balaran for approval to reconnect the systems. Balaran's requirements are stringent, however, and the negotiations "have been going back and forth," Roselius said. "I'm not 100 percent optimistic."

Interior has extensive electronic connections with the outside world: The department is involved in the operation of more than 50 Web sites, including one that records reservations for national parks nationwide, and online sales generated by the U.S. Geological Survey totaled $7.5 million last year.

While the main Interior Web site is inactive, the USGS and National Interagency Fire Center Web sites are back online. After an emergency hearing Dec. 8, Lamberth agreed to allow Interior to reconnect those two sites to the Internet.

The continuing impasse over Interior's use of the Internet -- while baffling to many outside the agency -- reflects the determination on the part of many American Indians not to back down in the face of what they consider just one more chapter in the mistreatment they have historically received from BIA, said a petroleum engineer familiar with the case from a professional and personal perspective.

BIA has held Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years. The plaintiffs filed their class-action suit five years ago, charging that BIA has been so neglectful that it is now impossible for landowners and their descendants to determine how much money is in their accounts.

Between 150 and 200 American Indian tribes hold energy resources, estimates William McCabe, a Denver-based energy consultant to several tribes and a member of the Navajo Nation. Tribes hold about 10 percent of the nation's energy resources, including 30 percent of coal resources, 9 percent of natural gas resources and 4 percent of oil resources, according to McCabe.

"Historically, the government has failed miserably in its trust responsibilities," he said. "There was no way most tribal individuals could keep track of what was going on, so the mindset of the oil companies was: "We'll siphon off oil or gas here and there, and no one will ever know.'"

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