Lack of Internet access stymies Interior agencies

Lack of Internet access stymies Interior agencies

Interior Department agencies that have struggled since early December without Internet connections face additional months of partial paralysis.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is the most affected agency. 'We are a long way from getting back up,' the bureau's acting CIO, Debbie Clark, said.

Many of the department's online links remain severed following a court decision aimed at protecting American Indian trust fund data from tampering by hackers.

To progressively bring Interior's computers back online, department officials have separated systems and servers that handle the trust fund data from other systems. But the effort is hobbled by the many layers of approval managers must clear, officials said.

'We consider that every server and PC' at BIA contains trust data, so there is a potential for months of further delays in restoring Internet service, Clark said.

Clark and other Interior IT officials can reactivate Internet service only after court-appointed special master Alan Balaran has approved security upgrades.

Changes must be tested before they can be approved, and even the limited connections necessary for testing require approval, Clark said.

Missing links

The lack of Internet service has turned Interior agencies into isolated data islands. Systems no longer link offices in the department, link to department's contractors or link to outside entities. The only electronic connection remaining is internal e-mail.

The situation has slowed some operations and forced the suspension of others, leaving some citizens without government services, Interior employees said.

The lack of Internet services has forced Interior employees to rely on phones, fax and the services of subcontractors to carry out tasks.

'It is difficult to deal with contract modifications,' one department employee said, explaining that using postal mail has slowed the contracting process.

One of the most important tasks suspended by the Internet shutdown was the distribution of millions of dollars in trust fund royalty payments.

The royalties are derived from the sale of natural resources such as coal, oil and gas on American Indian lands.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, criticized the payment problems even though he acknowledged that Interior was working hard to get systems back online.

'For thousands of Navajos, these royalty checks are literally a lifeline,' he said. 'When the checks stopped coming, many Navajos were left with no source of income.'

Bingaman termed the situation horrible and called on Interior secretary Gale Norton to consider issuing checks manually.

BIA's Clark said her agency is three months behind in issuing checks, having missed November, December and January runs.

'Depending on the systems' [status], they should start getting checks in the very near future,' Clark said.

But, she cautioned, the databases of the Minerals Management Service had not yet been cleared for operation at press time, and those systems generate the bulk of the oil, gas and coal revenue data needed to issue checks.

Clark said the National Park Service had approached Balaran with a proposal for restoring its Internet service that the special master was considering.

Park Service officials were not available for comment.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs in the class action suit charged that Interior had misinterpreted the court's order and implemented an excessively broad cutoff of Internet services.

'That was a decision made by deputy secretary Stephen Griles,' said Philip Smith, a spokesman for the plaintiffs. 'It was considerably more drastic than it needed to be, and was overreaching.'

BIA systems specialists worked to bring the agency's resources management system into compliance with security requirements and are allowed to operate the system Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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