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Judge orders trust system shut down

WASHINGTON ? Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to shut down the access to the accounting system that manages the Individual Indian Money accounts.

One day after an investigative report, unsealed by the court, revealed a breach in security in the computer system, Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the system shut down.

The report unsealed by Lamberth in Cobell vs. Norton characterizes the lack of computer security as "deplorable and inexcusable," recommending that the court seize control of the system.

Special Master Alan Balaran's report documents serious breaches in computer security and efforts to mislead the court and American Indian beneficiaries with accounts in IIM.

"Interior has demonstrated a pattern of neglect that has threatened, and continues to threaten, the integrity of trust data upon which Indian beneficiaries depend," Balaran said. "Rather than take any remedial action, its senior management has resorted to the condescending refrain that has consistently insinuated itself into the federal government's relationship with Native Americans, in general, and with IIM holders, in particular."

The report cites an incident where Balaran, with permission from the court, hired a computer security firm in June and July to hack into the Interior's system and created a false account in Balaran's name. Balaran says the action went undetected by BIA employees.

Balaran also criticized Interior for misleading the court about the status of security within the system, after knowing for years there were major problems protecting important trust data.

Balaran said that despite numerous warnings that system was not secure and concerns voice by Judge Lamberth in 1999 that he was "alarmed and disturbed" by the lack of a plan to fix security breaches, nothing has changed.

"After 10 years of blistering reviews generated by federal agencies and private contractors, this deplorable condition is inexcusable," Balaran said. "And most significantly, why was the court not informed, via quarterly reports, that trust data was virtually unprotected?"

In concluding his report, Balaran said Interior repeatedly failed in its efforts to reform the trust process and fix computer security problems. He said stakes are simply too high and promises of future compliance should not be believed. He also said the court should strip Interior's authority to handle the process on its own.

"It is the recommendation of the Special Master that the Court intervene and assume direct oversight of those systems housing Indian trust data," Balaran said. "Without such direct oversight, the threat to records crucial to the welfare of hundreds of thousands of IIM beneficiaries will continue unchecked."

Balaran cited Interior in the past for violating court orders. Just last year, he found the court was misled by government attorneys which constituted an "ethical breach" that "could be construed as the perpetuation of a potential fraud upon the court.

"It is disgusting and shameful that Secretary Norton and her predecessors have allowed this situation to exist and have done nothing," said Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the case.

"They should be in jail. They're treating money that belongs to individual Indians, some of the poorest people in this nation, like it's a candy store."

Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, and a group of other Indian plaintiffs, initiated the class action lawsuit in 1996 to force the federal government to account for millions of dollars in unreconciled individual Indian accounts.

Interior Secretary Norton, along with Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, were scheduled to go to trial before Judge Lamberth on Dec. 10, charged with contempt of court for allegations which include false reports about trust reform and computer security.