WASHINGTON, D.C. ? After a drastic computer link shutdown with a ripple effect through Indian Country and even the U. S. Government, the Interior Department is getting a scolding for grossly misreading the judicial order that started it all.
The computer disconnect is turning out to be one of the greater embarrassments of the Cobell lawsuit charging Interior and the BIA with grossly mismanaging individual Indian trust accounts and causing billions of dollars of losses to some 300,000 beneficiaries. And it comes in a week in which Interior Secretary Gale Norton and BIA head Neal McCaleb are standing trial for contempt of court in the case.
"The Department of Interior does not understand this order," said Justice Department lawyer Matt Fader.
Even though the court order called only for the shutdown of computer systems related to individual trust data, the Department of Interior decided to cut off all its computer systems linked to the internet. The action froze computer access throughout the Department. Indian Country may suffer even further as Interior is unable to operate many of its important functions, including the issuing of checks in critical areas such as general assistance, self-governance and other tribal funds.
The temporary restraining order issued by Judge Royce Lamberth in Cobell v. Norton directed Interior immediately to disconnect all information technology systems and computers "that house or provide access to individual Indian trust data." The Judge 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. However, for some unknown reason, Interior officials shut down all of the department's systems.
According to Department technicians, Interior's computer systems are connected to the internet to exchange information between agencies rather than to provide service to the public or trust account holders. Instead of establishing its own internal computer network, the Interior Department turned to the internet to connect its data bases. While Interior officials say they decided to use the internet because it cut down on costs, they neglected to install security measures, such as firewalls, to protect its internal data.
The report which lead to Lamberth's shutdown order proved that the trust data systems could be compromised. The investigator who filed the report had received permission from the court to hire computer security experts to hack into the system. The court-authorized hackers created a false account without being detected.
Following the judicial order, Interior shut down all of its systems, not just those relevant to trust data. The department then asked the court for an emergency hearing for permission to reconnect some crucial networks, such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nation Fire Information Center. However, other vital systems still remain disconnected.
At the contempt trial for Secretary Norton and Assistant Secretary McCaleb, Judge Lamberth scolded Interior for misreading his order. "I don't know why you decided to disconnect all your systems," he said.
Even after the emergency hearing, plaintiff's attorneys said Interior was continuing to misread the order.
An Interior Department statement following the hearing said, "Attorneys for Interior and the Department of Justice requested today's emergency hearing citing the potentially severe impacts following implementation of a December 5 Temporary Restraining Order to immediately disconnect from the Internet all Interior agencies' information technology systems and all computers that house or provide access to individual Indian trust data." (Emphasis added)
The December 5 order called only for the disconnection of "all information technology systems that house or provide access to individual trust data..." According to Cobell's attorneys, government lawyers misread the short order by inserting the extra "and," so that they included "all" information technology systems.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say they are working on a consent order with the court to get all other systems up and running again.
"We understand the impact this has on Indian Country," said Keith Harper, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "However, this is a problem of Interior's creation. The order says shut down trust data information, not the entire system. They're trying to blame this on us when they've known about the security problems for years."