Letter to the editor
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," an article in your Feb. 4 issue: "They [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 stay 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."
I had well-worn charts that I prepared in the 1990s that 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.
And guess what? Within Interior, I had the pleasure of managing the information
resources program at the bottom of the Interior funding heap on a per capita
basis, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was second from the bottom out of
the eight remaining bureaus.
In regard to the reporting on "Interior's IT problems," I have not seen
any insight from your publication on the rot that this type of funding gap
could cause at BIA or NPS during a 20- or 30-year period. You talk about
a cultural gap, whatever that is, and quote a former official from the Environmental
Protection Agency on security issues.
I also spent 12 years at the EPA. It is about the same size as NPS in
terms of staff, but it is far smaller in regard to infrastructure. However,
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
Most of the problems discussed in "The great divide" are little more
than symptoms of the long-term chronic underfunding of Interior IT-related
From my past federal budget battles, I know that in a period of tight
national budgets, it's unlikely that the Interior political leadership will
talk about or address this massive core structural IT funding problem that
has persisted over several decades.
A favorite and familiar solution is to rearrange the deck chairs by
reorganizing and or changing managers. (A former BIA chief information officer
was moved into my old office several months after I left, and I see BIA
may be reorganized again.)
Your articles also put some emphasis on the Interior CIO position, giving
the impression that there is some measure of line IT control from that position.
In reality, IT in Interior works more like a beehive, ant colony or maybe
a jellyfish where the cells work together without a well-developed central
nervous system. Each bureau IT function and major Interior IT function (accounting,
payroll, mainframe management) operate together without much central control.
The Interior CIO had almost no line budget and very few technical resources.
You are wasting your time investigating any specific Interior IT problem
from that perspective.
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. In Interior, the tradition was to have a
bureau provide departmentwide operational IT functions. In that context,
the existing U.S. Geological 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 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.
In the late 1990s, the NPS Web site became more and more popular with
citizens around the world. In 2000, the site received more than a million
hits a day, more than all other Interior sites combined and one of the top
10 in the federal sector. As this popularity grew, I became very concerned
about potential network vulnerabilities caused by the IT funding shortfalls
and the inherent mission differences of the NPS open systems and the BIA-type
secure systems running on the open Interior network.
I knew if this resource went down for any length of time, you would
never get all the customers back. Because I did not want to see this valuable
Web-based resource go down the drain because of some Interior problem, 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 "life-boated" or
isolated from the Interior network if there was some form of catastrophic
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 if that 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.
Since I have retired, I'm still broke, but I enjoy reading your publication
and I can make these comments without the political or operational pressures
on the current Interior CIOs.