Searching for accountability

The Interior Department's chief information officer and one of his top deputies have testified that they played little more than advisory roles 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 more than 300,000 American Indians.

Testifying Jan. 11 in U.S. District Court in the 5-year-old court case brought by some of the trust beneficiaries, John Snyder, chief of Interior's Information Resources Management acquisition and management division, said he read a February 2000 memo charging that there were problems in the system that should be addressed, but that he did nothing in response.

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

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

White testified Jan. 10 that his office has strictly an advisory and policy function and is charged with oversight duties over 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. Although lawyers for the trust beneficiaries expressed surprise that neither White nor anyone in his office took action on the trust system problems, experts in federal information technology management said the lack of enforcement authority plagues every agency CIO. "Since the CIO has no authority over the people doing the work, the [security] policies carry very little weight," said an expert who asked not to be identified.

The case is drawing increased public attention because all but two Interior Web sites remain down after Lamberth issued an order Dec. 5, 2001, 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 can access the data.

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

When TAAMS was devised, Interior connected it to every Web portal the department had available 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 TAAMS easy prey for hackers, he said.

In the same way, TAAMS could now be disconnected from those portals so the public can access them, 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 case is expected to resume Jan. 31, because Lamberth is scheduled to be out of the country Jan. 16-30. Interior will hold one in a series of "consultations" on reforming the Indian trust system on Feb. 1 in Washington, D.C., and five days later, the House Resources Committee plans to hold an oversight hearing on the same issue.

Meanwhile, 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. Lamberth has already indicated some annoyance with Interior's failure to bring its popular Web sites back up.

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Case timeline

June 10, 1996: Original complaint filed by American Indians, seeking reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Trust Asset and Accounting Management System, and an accounting of money in the trusts.

June 10, 1999: Trial on first phase of case begins.

Dec. 21, 1999: U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth issues opinion. He orders the government to file quarterly reports and maintains court jurisdiction over the system for at least five years.

Jan. 3, 2000: The government appeals Lamberth's decision.

Feb. 23, 2001: The U.S. Court of Appeals upholds Dec. 21, 1999, decision.

Dec. 4, 2001: Lamberth unseals an investigative report by Special Master Alan Balaran that found security holes in the Indian trust data system.

Dec. 5, 2001: Lamberth orders Interior's systems disconnected from the Internet to protect data in the Indian trust system.

Dec. 17, 2001: Lamberth allows Interior to restart computer systems that do not connect to Indian trust fund data, but only with Balaran's approval.

Jan. 8, 2002: Trial on second phase of case begins.

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