Interior officials take the stand

Both the Interior Department's chief information officer and one of his top deputies have testified that they played little more than an advisory role in the development of a seriously troubled, multimillion-dollar computer system set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to handle trust payments to about 500,000 American Indians.

Testifying Jan. 11 in U.S. District Court, John Snyder, chief of Interior's Information Resources Management acquisition and management division, said that he did nothing in response to a February 2000 memo charging that the department's efforts to resolve problems with the system were failing.

"So you didn't accept [the project manager's] advice?" Judge Royce Lamberth asked.

"It wasn't my call to do anything," Snyder replied. "That's Daryl's [Interior CIO Daryl White] job."

White testified Jan. 10 that his office has strictly an advisory and policy function and oversees hundreds of Interior systems in addition to BIA's Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), which collects and maintains data on the 54 million acres of American Indian land.

The case is drawing increasing public attention because all but two Interior Web sites remain down since Lamberth issued an order Dec. 6 requiring the department to disconnect from the Internet "all technology systems that house or provide access to individual Indian trust data," as well as all Interior computers that have access to the data.

In a memo to all Interior employees that same day, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles directed employees to disconnect all agency computers from the Internet and to shut down Interior's external network connections. After an emergency hearing Dec. 8, Lamberth agreed to allow Interior to reconnect the U.S. Geological Survey and National Interagency Fire Center Web sites to the Internet.

But lawyers who represent the trust beneficiaries in the case say there is no reason for Interior's popular public Web sites to remain inaccessible in mid-January.

When the TAAMS system was devised, Interior connected it to every Internet portal the department had available in an effort to make it easier for local BIA offices to access the data, said Dennis Gingold, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. Unfortunately, those widespread connections also made the TAAMS system easy prey to hackers, he said.

In the same way, the TAAMS system could now be disconnected from those portals so that they could be made available to the public, Gingold said. "These people aren't malicious," he said of Interior's IT officials, "they just don't know what the hell they're doing."

The trust beneficiaries have asked Lamberth to wrest control of the trust data system from Interior and appoint a receiver to manage it instead, Gingold said.

The case is expected to draw to a close this week, because Lamberth is scheduled to be out of the country Jan. 16-30. Interior will hold one of a series of "consultations" on reforming the Indian trust system Feb. 1, and five days later, the House Resources Committee plans to hold an oversight hearing on the same issue.

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