Interior sites might close again

The Interior Department faces the possibility of being forced to again shut down some of its Internet services.

The department in recent months has been reactivating its systems following a December court order that led to the cutoff of all its Internet connections to protect against hacking of American Indian trust data.

With a court overseer's approval, the department had been restoring online systems after showing that they had been cleared of trust data and protected against tampering. Interior's Office of Surface Mining reconnected its Web site Jan. 29.

But the presence of trust data in OSM systems could lead Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order the office to disconnect its links to the Internet, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys in the case of Cobell v. Norton and other sources close to the case.

The plaintiffs asked the court in a May 8 motion to sever OSM's Internet link. 'Plaintiffs believe that defendants and their counsel have defrauded [Lamberth] by duping him to reconnect to the Internet databases containing OSM data based on ... misrepresentations that they contained no electronic individual Indian trust data,' the motion argued.

In a recent exchange of telephone conferences and letters between government lawyers and Mark Kester Brown of the Cobell legal team, the government said it could not confirm that the OSM computers are free of all trust data.

Justice Department and Interior lawyers told Brown the government is reviewing OSM records. Lamberth had granted permission for OSM to reconnect to the Internet based on government statements that no trust data resided on the systems.

Brown said the question of whether the court might order OSM to again sever its Internet connection depends on the judge's discretion.

Sources also said parts of Interior's connection to the Internet likely will be down for as much as a year longer while the department develops a data security plan. Interior officials have discussed creating a new network for American Indian trust records. Trustnet would be designed to maintain trust records separately from other Interior data.

OSM communications director Mike Gauldin said the main effect of cutting off the agency's Web connection would be to suspend access to its databases.

For example, state and tribal officials use the OSM site to access the Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System, which tracks about 140,000 acres of mines. State and tribal governments add information to AMLIS via the Web.

In addition, such an order could jeopardize OSM headquarters' connection to the agency's financial center in Denver, Gauldin said. Severing that connection could interfere with its grant program for mine reclamation. This year, the financial center expects to issue more than $187 million in grants for mine cleanups.

In a related issue, court-appointed special master Alan Balaran advised Justice in an April 30 letter that consultants from IBM Corp. who are assisting his court-mandated oversight of the reconnection process found new security flaws in Minerals Management Service computers.

IBM found that MMS had been transferring trust data to state government and private-sector networks, 'the security of which is unknown,' Balaran said.

He added, 'I share IBM's concern that there may exist a lack of protocols securing royalty data and that, in reaction to the court's orders, individual Indian trust data has simply been migrated from one insecure system to another.'

MMS reopened partial Internet service on March 27, an agency manager in a regional office said. 'I find that still, traffic is less than it once was,' he said.

The manager said he is experiencing intermittent problems related to the Internet cutoff. 'Since MMS has been back online, the firewall often, but not always, blocks messages that carry attached Microsoft Word or execute files, or strips them of the files,' the manager said.

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