Is there a federal CIO playbook for a militia takeover?

On Jan. 2, armed members of several anti-government militia groups took over the headquarters building at the Fish and Wildlife Service's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in windswept rural eastern Oregon. Some of the invaders -- it's unclear how many there are -- vowed to stay at the site indefinitely to protest the pending incarceration of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who have been convicted of setting fires that wound up burning federal land.

Although the event poses risks to the facility, it's not something you'd find covered in typical IT contingency and continuity-of-operations strategies, one former federal CIO said.

Most agencies have plans to get crippled IT operations up and running after big events such as natural disasters, and although the invasion and occupation of a small office might not be in the plans, it should be, said one federal CIO who spoke with FCW on background.

Another former federal CIO called the occupation "an outlandish scenario" that agencies might not anticipate, adding that the potential danger to IT operations at any federal facility obviously depends on how much IT is physically present.

The current federal CIO said no IT contingency playbook can identify all possible scenarios, but there should be a process for handling the unexpected. Agencies need to know who is responsible for physical security and when to involve law enforcement in the response to an event.

In addition, the federal CIO said disaster response and continuity-of-operations planning should include periodic tests of what would happen if a specific facility goes out.

"Encourage the mantra of 'semper Gumby': Have plans and adapt them to fit your circumstances," he said.

With the advent of cloud services, the number of servers has been reduced and IT assets are no longer located at regional offices, which could help in emergency or disaster situations, he said. Services offered via the cloud can be turned off remotely. "That's a riskier proposition with on-premises IT facilities," he added.

The Malheur refuge is hardly a hotbed of IT, and data security does not appear to be an issue. In spring, summer and autumn, the refuge is a destination for bird watchers who flock to see migratory species such as sandhill cranes and rare shorebirds. Winter is the off-season for the facility.

When asked about IT operations at the facility, Fish and Wildlife Service officials declined to comment and instead directed FCW to the refuge's website, which has said the occupation by an "unknown number of armed individuals" at the facility is ongoing. The site stressed that the refuge's primary concern was employee safety and confirmed that no federal employees were present when the facility was taken over.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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