Interior protests court ruling

Interior Department officials fired back against a March 15 court ruling to shut down the agency's information technology systems, but said they would comply.

Charging that Interior officials mismanaged Native American assets by exposing trust accounts to risk via the Internet, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on March 15 ordered a shutdown of most of the agency's public Web sites and Internet connections. The accounts handle millions of dollars owed to Native Americans. Lamberth's order comes after eight years of litigation that included a 2001 finding by court consultants that trust accounts were vulnerable to hackers.

In a statement, Interior officials blasted the order as "a new frontier in this court's efforts to run the operations of the executive branch agencies."

"Going where no precious order has gone before, the court has rules, with very few exceptions, that the public's connection to the entire department via the Internet be shut down whether Indian trust data is available on those [Interior] systems or not," the statement reads.

Most of the systems ordered to disconnect were shut down overnight. Remaining offices will be disconnected today.

The court's decision will affect Internet connections in the Inspector General's Office, the Minerals Management Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Office of Surface Mining, the National Business Center, and the Office of the Special Trustee. The Bureau of Indian Affairs will also lose Internet capabilities.

However, offices that handle emergencies, such as systems for wildlife fire prevention, as well as the National Park Service and the agency's budget office were exempted from the ruling. The decision follows two earlier rulings assailing Interior's computer security.

Interior lawyers are expected to seek congressional recourse, but it is unclear whether Congress will become involved in the conflict.

In a statement, agency officials promised to comply with the court order in a way that would not endanger American lives and property. However, they said the shutdown "will have the sad consequence of leaving every Indian student behind in their access to the Internet."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees many schools.

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