WASHINGTON - The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled that the BIA can reconnect to the Internet.
In the decision, issued May 14, Judge James Robertson granted a request from Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and other defendants in the ongoing Cobell trust litigation to reconnect Internet systems in several offices in the department, including the BIA, Office of the Special Trustee, the Office of Historical Trust Accounting, the Office of Hearing and Appeals and the Office of the Solicitor.
In doing so, Robertson vacated a Dec. 17, 2001, order that effectively pulled the BIA offline for almost seven years.
;'Since my resolution of these motions turns not on a weighing of the evidence, but on a legal conclusion that it is not my role to weigh IT security risks, the Court of Appeals instruction that district judges 'may not resolve the state of Interior's IT systems security without conducting a hearing on the evidence in dispute' is inapplicable,'' Robertson wrote in his seven-page ruling. ''For these reasons, I find that the [previous order] is of no further use and must be vacated. The five disconnected offices and bureaus may be connected.''
Indian plaintiffs in the case had argued that the government has not demonstrated that the five offices were ready for reconnection. They identified several recent critical reviews of the current state of information technology security within Interior, and they claimed that declarations of Interior officials attesting to the adequacy of information technology security were ''in direct, irreconcilable conflict with such reports,'' according to language used by Pearson in his ruling.
Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered Interior to cut its Internet connections in 2001 because he deemed that Indian trust accounts were vulnerable to computer hackers. Lamberth long presided over the Cobell litigation, in which American Indian trust beneficiaries have been seeking restitution of funds lost or stolen due to Interior mismanagement. He was removed from the case in July 2006.
Since Lamberth's initial ruling, Interior has been able to incrementally restore Internet access in some offices as a result of court-monitored security upgrades.
The BIA and four other offices, however, had not been able to meet security requirements, so they remained offline. Employees in those offices have done most of their communications work over the phone and by fax, and have not been able to e-mail contacts outside Interior.
Most staffers within the five affected offices have not had Internet access at their desks, and had to trek to a computer room to do all Web-based research and writing.
The official BIA Web site has long displayed this message: ''The BIA Web site as well as the BIA mail servers have been made temporarily unavailable due to the Cobell litigation. Please continue to check from time to time. We have no estimate on when authorization will be given to reactivate these sites.''
Bureau officials have been able to post some information, including press releases, on Interior's official Web site. Some top BIA officials also were able to use security-enhanced computers from other divisions of Interior to send and receive e-mail outside of the department.
''It's been inconvenient and slowed down our work,'' Gary Garrison, a spokesman with the BIA, said. ''A lot of us are looking forward to having this modern convenience back.''
With Robertson's authorization, it is only a matter of time before the offices establish a new online presence and begin e-mailing outside the department.
Garrison said a timeframe for getting back online is being worked out.