Appeals court restores some Interior Internet links

The Interior Department has restored most of nine agencies' Internet links, following an order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that stayed a lower court injunction mandating their renewed disconnection.

The appeals court's order on Wednesday temporarily voided a March 15 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that forced the department to sever the Internet connections again. The appeals court said its temporary stay of the district court order did not speak to the merits of the lower court order.

District court Judge Royce C. Lamberth first ordered Interior to disconnect almost all its Internet links in December 2001, after consultants hired by the court proved they could easily hack into trust accounts Interior holds on behalf of American Indians owed royalties on resources extracted from their lands (Click for Jan. 7, 2002, GCN story)

Lamberth presides over eight-year-old litigation known as Cobell vs. Norton, in which American Indian trust beneficiaries have sought compensation for billions of dollars in trust funds the federal government has admitted losing track of since the 19th century.

Despite Wednesday's ruling, Interior has not yet restored all its systems' Internet connections. Lamberth's March 15 order exempted systems that protect life and property, as well as those of several agencies that do not have American Indian trust data in their computers. But Interior systems still covered by earlier district court orders'notably those of the Bureau of Indian Affairs'remain offline, as they have been since December 2001.

Interior officials were not available to comment on the Internet link restoration by the time this article was posted.

Keith Harper, attorney for the Native American Rights fund in Washington and member of the legal team representing the American Indian plaintiffs, said, 'All the court of appeals did was issue a temporary stay of the March 15 district court order. The prior injunction from July 2003 has not been stayed.'

Harper charged that Interior is now violating the July 2003 injunction, which also ordered the department to disconnect its computers from the Internet.

Interior has worked under the supervision of court officials since December 2001 to improve its systems security.

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