Land Management takes site down

In the latest move related to a long-running dispute over the security of information about the Indian Trust Fund, the Interior Department recently shut down the Bureau of Land Management Web site after an inspector general identified vulnerabilities.

Bureau officials took the site off-line April 8, two days after the release of a report from Interior's inspector general, whose investigators found that because of poor network security and weak access controls, "we could have easily compromised the confidentiality, integrity and availability of the identified Indian Trust data residing on such systems."

Agency officials said the inspector general’s report prompted the Web site shutdown.

Cobell v. Norton is a class-action lawsuit filed almost nine years ago. It involves Interior's oversight of the Indian Trust fund. Plaintiffs have accused Interior officials of doing a poor job of protecting trust data from hackers.

In 2001, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered Interior officials to disable Internet connections on all computers that could be used to access trust fund data. He ordered two subsequent shutdowns, although Internet access has returned to the department following a federal appeals court ruling that blocked Lamberth's latest order.

A representative for the plaintiffs said external forces weighed more heavily than bureau officials are admitting. "Clearly, there was pressure from the court to keep their systems clean," Cobell spokesman Bill McAllister said. "It's belated.... This is an attempt by the Interior to close the barn door after the horses have left the stable."

Cobell filed a motion this week for a restraining order and preliminary injunction to shut down every information technology system that houses or accesses individual trust data. Representatives of Cobell say the government has refused to provide the inspector general's full report to the plaintiffs, who argue that because Interior admits its IT systems are insecure, the systems must be disconnected from the Internet and shut down.

"We would hope that the court moves expeditiously," Geoffrey Rempel, an accountant with the lead plaintiff and lead attorney, said this week, adding that the systems "are just as vulnerable to internal threats as they are to external threats."

In other news, on April 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay of an order that would have forced Interior officials to account for every transaction involving Indian Trust holdings since 1887. Government officials said this accounting would cost an estimated $12 billion or more. Now, a briefing on the matter will begin May 18 with oral arguments to be held in September. Appellate judges also denied the plaintiffs' attempt to send the case back to U.S. District Court.

Cobell representatives said that, while the stay is not what they had wanted, statements within Interior's filing suggest the government is acknowledging it cannot proceed with the accounting the way it had envisioned.

"We have determined that it's impossible to do the accounting, when records are missing," McAllister said, adding that he now hopes both sides can agree on the accounting process and thus speed the case.

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