Interior asked to disconnect office

Here they go again.

Plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit have asked a federal judge to disconnect the Office of Surface Mining from the Internet — for the second time.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth pulled the plug on the Interior Department's Web sites in December to protect data maintained under its Trust Asset and Accounting Management System, citing a report that showed hackers could easily breach the system.

The OSM Web site went back online nearly two months later with many more Interior agencies, including the National Park Service, following suit.

But that was then.

"Contemnors again have placed individual Indian trust data at imminent risk of loss, corruption, deletion or unlawful manipulation because OSM systems are connected to the Internet and security is inadequate," attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in an introduction to an emergency motion filed June 27.

OSM officials declined to comment.

Interior has held American Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years, leasing the properties and processing revenue earned from farming and drilling. A group of beneficiaries filed a class action lawsuit in 1996, claiming that poor bookkeeping has prevented landowners and their descendants from determining their account balances. They estimate as much as $10 billion in lost or missing funds.

Their motion comes only one day after a joint Interior/tribal leader task force briefed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the progress it has made toward reaching consensus on a solution to trust reform.

Despite the positive tone of the hearing, lead plaintiff Eloise Cobell said problems remain. Cobell has asked the court to place individual trust accounts in receivership out of Interior's control. A decision is pending.

"We need the experts that a receiver would bring in" to fix the computer systems, she said. "I think that the entire firewall and access [issue] has not been refined [to] where we feel we can trust the inability of hackers to get in."

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