Interior awaits court ruling on Internet cutoff

Interior Department officials and attorneys for American Indian trust beneficiaries are waiting for a ruling this afternoon by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth that could sever the department's Internet connections again.

Judge Lamberth this morning heard oral arguments from both sides in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit over whether he should grant a preliminary injunction requested by the plaintiffs to cut off the department's Internet connections.

The seven-year-old litigation centers on the federal government's admitted mismanagement of American Indian royalty revenues from coal, oil, gas, grazing and other resources that the government administers as a trustee. The plaintiffs charge that the government has lost billions of dollars of the trustees' funds through mismanagement since the 1880s. (Click for July 3 GCN coverage)

In December 2001, Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to disconnect its systems from the Internet because consultants hired by the court proved that hackers with minimal experience and free software could break into the trust accounting system and create bogus accounts. Interior has been operating under a consent decree issued that month that provided for a court official, special master Alan Balaran, to approve the reconnection of Interior systems as the department upgraded their security.

Interior has reconnected many of its systems under Balaran's supervision, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs' systems remain offline.

But Interior officials and Balaran have disagreed over the terms under which the court's systems consultants will be able to conduct scans of the Interior systems' security.

This morning, Lamberth temporarily suspended the consent order issued in December 2001 and so removed Balaran from the process. Until the consent order is restored, Interior will submit its requests to reconnect systems directly to Lamberth, the judge said.

Interior faces more problems later today if Lamberth grants the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction, because it would again have to disconnect all its systems from the Internet. When Lamberth has granted previous orders compelling Interior to disconnect its systems, he has allowed the department to retain connections for systems involved in health, safety and law enforcement functions.

Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the plaintiffs, this morning said, 'We do not believe the defendants have the will or the ability to correct the problems' with Interior systems security.

'We have a trustee delegate [the Interior Department] that by the admission of their own employees, including [CIO] Hord Tipton, have said that they cannot identify which systems access trust data and which don't,' Gingold said. He added that Interior's court filings had indicated that 'because the systems are integrated, it would cause enormous problems' to try to identify which systems contain only American Indian trust data.

Gingold charged that Interior officials had sought to obstruct Balaran's work. Citing Interior's alleged failure to separate the American Indian trust data from other systems, he said, 'This is a disgraceful situation that must end.'

Justice Department attorney John Warshawsky asked Lamberth to deny the request for a preliminary injunction, saying it is 'not justified by the general claim that there are weaknesses in computer security.'

Lamberth questioned Warshawsky sharply, asking whether the government would cooperate with Balaran. The Justice Department attorney said the December 2001 consent decree did not provide Balaran the authority to manage Interior's systems. 'We have worked with the special master, allowing him to do things he did not have the authority to do,' Warshawsky said, adding that it had become impossible to continue working with the special master.

'You tell me why I shouldn't shut down every Interior Department system today,' Lamberth said.

Warshawsky said such a shutdown would cause widespread suffering, including to the American Indian trust beneficiaries.

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