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A Gale Norton Christmas

If anyone in Indian country needed more proof that politicians shouldn't be allowed to guide the reform effort for the Individual Indian Monies (IIM) trust any longer, the Interior Department has come up with a beauty.

It has not only shut down all Internet access to its web sites. It has frozen payments to individual Indian trust beneficiaries ? just in time for the holidays. At the moment, Interior is sitting on 43,000 checks that a lot of people in Indian country were counting on at this time of year.

Why?

Because Interior wants to shift the blame for its own gross mismanagement of the trust onto the Cobell plaintiffs ? those of us who have been fighting for five and a half years to force Interior to clean up the mess. Interior Secretary Norton also seems to want to embarrass the judge in the Cobell v. Norton case.

What's going on? A recent investigative report to U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth demonstrated that there is no computer security in place to protect IIM trust accounting data from hackers or other unauthorized intrusions. In fact, recent tests done by the Special Master, Alan Balaran, revealed that from the Internet ? essentially anywhere in the world ? any mediocre hacker could break into the database that holds trust information and modify, corrupt, delete or otherwise compromise that data. What's more, any such manipulation would not be detectable ? the computer system leaves no audit trail.

Norton and her aides have had a copy of Balaran's report since Nov. 15, but haven't done anything about it. In fact, the report points out that Interior has known since at least 1989 that computer security for the trust accounting data was a disaster. They did nothing.

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Alarmed that a trust that holds $500 million a year in revenues from Indian-owned lands could be penetrated by virtually anybody with a computer, anywhere in the world, Judge Lamberth ordered the trust system taken off the Internet until Interior installs necessary safeguards ? 'firewalls' and detection software to guard against penetration and theft.

Secretary Norton has responded by taking the entire Interior Department off-line. It's hard to tell whether this wild overreaction is intended as a political tactic (Norton's contempt trial is going on in Judge Lamberth's court) or if it's just the usual mismanagement and incompetence we expect from Interior.

Showing where Interior's heart is, lawyers for Norton requested an emergency hearing on Dec. 8 so they could ask the judge to allow them to restart some vital agency functions affecting firefighting services and the U.S. Geological Survey. But they didn't say a word about Indians, or the IIM trust, or the fact that some of this nation's poorest citizens depend on their trust checks, especially now.

We have now filed court papers with Judge Lamberth, proposing that the BIA be allowed to bring its systems back up ? with court supervision ? so that it can cut the 43,000 checks and get the money into the hands of the trust beneficiaries immediately. We hope Norton's lawyers will agree. But as they say, Interior never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

We will keep everyone in Indian country posted on the latest developments. In the meantime, we hope everyone will be aware that Norton and the BIA have powerful political reasons to try to shift the blame for this fiasco onto somebody besides themselves ? even though the record of their mismanagement is beyond question.

Why Interior doesn't want the IIM mess cleaned up is anyone's guess. But we know it is going to be cleaned up ? once it is placed under a receiver's control. Thanks to Judge Lamberth and many supportive people, we know that we will see justice.