The Circuit

The Rube Goldberg Solution

With Congress out of session until Sept. 2, the Bush administration has another three weeks to work out a strategy to ensure that the final bill creating the proposed Homeland Security Department includes all the agency components it wants.

On the information security side, a small but important piece of the administration's vision is the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Computer Security Division, a group that sets security standards, develops security guidance and performs security assessments for agencies.

White House officials are not thrilled about the exclusion of that group from the House version of the bill.

The House decided to keep the security division at NIST because of industry concerns that the transfer would impede discussion and interaction related to standards development. In the House bill, the division would only consult with the secretary of the new department and other agency officials, instead of working hand-in-hand with the rest of the proposed department's security policy and operational functions.

"It's too much like a Rube Goldberg solution," said Richard Clarke, special adviser to the president for cyberspace security, referring to the popular engineering challenge to create the most complex machine to perform an everyday task. "Our whole goal here is to streamline the federal government, not to devise new governance structures."

The House and Senate must come to terms on other issues, too. The House, unlike the Senate, proposes creating an undersecretary for security and technology position and a clearinghouse for vendors that offer homeland security solutions.

Interior Roadblocks

The Interior Department's "bunker mentality" has impeded progress in the ongoing battle for American Indian trust reform and has made it impossible for employees to work together, according to the department's inspector general.

The failure of a massive computer system and the destruction of e-mail messages were the result of "an environment fraught with second- guessing and personal attack," not personal misconduct, Inspector General Earl Devaney wrote in a report released last week.

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. The Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) was designed to take over the job of distributing payments to more than 300,000 beneficiaries.

Devaney's investigation stem-med from allegations made by plaintiffs in the Cobell litigation, a 6-year-old class- action lawsuit that claims the department lost or misplaced billions of dollars owed to landowners and their descendants.

"The Cobell litigation has so embroiled and angered those involved that they cannot see or think clearly in order to make a correct decision," Devaney said. "Every effort is thwarted by internal discord, distrust and a dysfunctional reluctance to assume ownership."

A "particularly noteworthy" example of the turf war is the friction between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee, he said.

Case in point: Thomas Slonaker, special trustee for American Indians, resigned two months after Court Monitor Joseph Kieffer III found Interior Secretary Gale Norton wasn't giving Slonaker the support he needed to fulfill his oversight duties, mandated by a 1994 law.

The department subsequently rejected the report, but as of July 30, Slonaker was out, a move that caught the attention of Congress.

"What I find most troubling are the stated reasons for Mr. Slonaker's recent resignation," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote in an Aug. 2 letter to Norton. "In various reports, Mr. Slonaker has been quoted as saying, 'I was given the choice of retiring or firing' and 'things have not been going well in terms of trust reform, but it's not always the message they want to hear.'"

The departure is an urgent signal that real and immediate change is critical, McCain concluded.

White Moves On

Interior's former chief information officer, Daryl White, will retire from the federal government Aug. 15. White has no immediate plans for the future, other than resting and traveling with his wife.

After four years as Interior's CIO, he became the Bureau of Reclamation's special assistant for technology in June. Hord Tipton, previously CIO at the Bureau of Land Management, took over as the Interior CIO. Tipton inherited responsibilities that include managing a computer system with known security flaws. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the department to disconnect from the Internet in December to protect data maintained under TAAMS after a computer security firm reportedly hacked into it.

White testified in January that his office had strictly an advisory and policy function and oversaw hundreds of department systems in addition to TAAMS, which collects and maintains data on the 54 million acres of American Indian land.

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