Skip to main content

Christmas Comes After All As BIA Sends Out Checks

  • Author:
  • Updated:

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Checks for Interior's Indian trust account holders are scheduled to go out after all, averting what could have been a major financial disaster for thousands of American Indians.

An agreement between federal court Judge Royce C. Lamberth and Interior would allow parts of Department's defective computer system to be started up once the Special Master Alan Balaran is satisfied the system is secure. Checks were set to be mailed to the Individual Indian Money account holders and the tribes before Christmas.

Lamberth ordered computers at the Department of Interior and the BIA shut down on Dec. 5 because the system was not secure and the protection of the accounts holders was compromised. He called the security a disgrace to the United States.

What Judge Lamberth didn't consider was that this is the time of the year that royalty payments in the millions of dollars are paid to land owners and tribes for land leased to ranchers, farmers, oil and gas companies and others.

He also didn't anticipate that Interior would shut down the entire system, including the BIA, in response to his order.

Gregg Bourland, Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said that Interior overreacted when it shut down the entire system, instead of just the system that experienced a breach of security.

"If a bulb was out on a string of Christmas lights you wouldn't run down and shut off the main breaker switch. It makes sense to find the broken light," Bourland said,

The royalty payments are usually made on a yearly basis just before Christmas. Some payments amount to no more than 23 cents for some individuals while other payments range into the thousands. For the poorer communities, such as the Pine Ridge Reservation, this meant the difference between heat in some homes and food for others, said John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

On the Cheyenne River Reservation it means millions of dollars each year that help boost the local economy.

Tribal Chairmen from the Northern Plains region gathered together Dec. 18 in a teleconference to strategize about the situation. They were assured by the BIA that the computers would be up and running that day and the checks would be mailed before Christmas.

Under Lamberth's latest order, Interior will be allowed to operate and reconnect some of its systems, but only after a seventy-two hour notice and the approval of Balaran, the court-appointed Special Master. Balaran is the one who through a series of reports documented serious breeches in computer security and Interior efforts to mislead the court and Indian beneficiaries.

The Judge also placed limitations on the activities in which Interior could engage while using the system.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"Interior may reconnect to the Internet, for specified periods, any information technology system that houses or provides access to individual Indian trust data for the limited purposes of (1) testing the security of the information technology systems, or (2) performing those functions necessary to receive, account for, and distribute trust funds or appropriated funds, or to provide necessary services," wrote Lamberth.

The parties had been working on a consent order with the court to get all systems up and running again, but those negotiations failed. Attorneys for Interior were insisting that a contempt charge against Secretary Norton related to lapses in computer security be dropped in exchange for her consenting to court oversight. The charge is just one of five charges against Norton and BIA Head Neal McCaleb.

Bourland said this problem did not come without advance warning. Since the Cobell lawsuit was filed five years ago, Interior has reacted to the court in a political fashion. The Office of Special Trustee was made an agency of the BIA even though Congress mandated that the trustee be given full authority over the trust system, Bourland said.

Other functions under the Interior, such as the National Park Service trust for timber and Minerals Management Service (MMS) trust for gas, have their own computer systems.

"These all must work together to provide the best trust service, but they have never been able to. There is no communication," said Bourland.

A plan called the High Level Implementation Plan was drawn up, but never approved. It would have been beneficial for trust management even though it caused some controversy, Bourland said. He plans to support the plan at Norton's scheduled regional consultation meetings.

"There was never a full architectural plan on trust and business put in place. It's like allowing children to go out and play. That's what created the various systems. They all went out and bought their own software.

"TAAMS software was for the oil and gas industry, yet they tried to tailor it for the BIA and they didn't put together a security plan. There are protocols that need to be followed and the IIM accounts need to be secured," he said.

In Lamberth's temporary restraining order of December 5. Interior was ordered immediately to disconnect all information technology systems and computers "that house or provide access to individual Indian trust data." However, despite clear directives limiting the order's scope to just trust related systems, Interior officials shut down all of its systems. The Judge had granted a request by Indian plaintiffs to close down the system after he unsealed an investigative report documenting "deplorable and inexcusable" lapses in computer security for trust data.

Instead of establishing its own internal computer network, the Interior Department used the internet to connect its data bases. While Interior officials say they decided to use the internet in place of an internal computer network because it cut down on costs, no security measures, such as firewalls, were put in place to protect that data.

The report which led to the Judge's initial shutdown order provided clear evidence that the trust data systems could be compromised. Balaran, with permission from the court, hired computer security experts who hacked into the system and created a false account without being detected.

Interior says that it has contracted with Predictive Systems, Inc. to install network firewalls and network intrusion detection systems in front of its Internet access points at three Information Resource Management offices in Virginia, New Mexico, and Arizona. The new security measures are scheduled to be completed by the end of January 2002.