WASHINGTON -- For the fourth time, a federal district judge has ordered
computers at the Department of Interior shut down because, the court
asserted, they are not properly protected against hackers. That move,
however, was quickly blocked.
Computers that contain data used to calculate and make lease and royalty
payments to American Indian Individual Money account holders and the
federal government would have been affected.
At the request of the Department of Justice, on Oct. 21 the U.S. Court of
Appeals ordered a stay of U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's order of
Oct. 20. Lamberth, in a more than 200-page ruling, ordered the Interior
computers removed from intra and Internet connections because of
inadequacies in the firewalls that are meant to protect against hackers who
could permanently destroy or damage trust account information.
Lamberth's order exempted department computers that were essential to
maintain protection against fires, threats to life, property or national
The shutdown would involve some 6,000 Interior computers that house Indian
trust data and other computers that provide indirect access to information
technology systems that house IIM data.
"Made from our initial review of the order, it will adversely impact our
ability to conduct program activities for American Indians as well as other
parts of the Department of Interior's mission," said Dan DuBray, Interior
The stay was deemed necessary for the operations of government and to
protect the public interest.
Lamberth's order allows the department to operate the computer systems for
five days each month to perform the functions necessary to submit lease
checks and other procedures required.
The disruptions in service that the shutdowns would cause, the department
argued, would not only hamper the trust duties and slow down the issuance
of checks for royalties and lease payments, but also deny the general
public access to information on national parks. Communication within the
department would also be hampered.
There have been four interruptions in the department's computer systems
since 2001. Following a hearing at which a Special Master's report stated
that the computer system had no firewalls, hardware or software solutions,
Lamberth ordered the first shutdown.
The Justice Department successfully appealed the order and the computers
were reconnected, only to have Lamberth order another shutdown.
The court of appeals remanded the case to the district court to determine
the current security of Interior's IT system. Following a 59-day hearing,
Lamberth issued his order.
Lamberth determined through findings of fact that former Interior IT
Securities Manager Roger Mahach, who graded the system below an "F," was
justified in his evaluation.
Lamberth, in his opinion, criticized what he called a lack of truthful
reporting by the department about improvements to the IT system over the
"Throughout Mahach's tenure, his reports contained positive information
that would be revealed to any outsider, and generally did not address any
negative information or problems," Lamberth wrote of required department
reports on the IT security.
Lamberth held Interior Secretary Gale Norton in contempt in 2002 for not
providing a complete report on the IT system security progress.
The court order includes a provision that allows Interior to submit a
request to temporarily reconnect the IT system. Reserving the right to
review the request, Lamberth stated that any proposal must contain a
uniform standard by which to evaluate security, a detailed description of
how those standards would be applied and an explanation of how well the
security system complies with those standards.
"The relief granted today is not likely to prove popular in government
circles. The court is not, however, in the business of doing the popular
thing or the politically savvy thing. The court must evaluate the evidence
presented, and take the action that is warranted by that evidence,"
Litigation to resolve what plaintiffs claim is billions of dollars in
non-payment of lease and royalty payments to IIM account holders was
started in 1996.
Plaintiffs in Cobell v. Norton claim the mismanagement of funds goes back
to 1887 with the enactment of the Dawes Act.
"When will this disgraceful behavior end, and when will Secretary Norton
begin to discharge her fiduciary responsibility that she owes to Indian
people?" asked lead plaintiff Eloise Cobell.
"We will fight her efforts to allow our trust records and assets to
continue to be manipulated, corrupted, stolen and destroyed because of
Interior's poor computer security."