Court orders Interior to move systems offline'again

Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District Court for the District of Columbia last week issued a preliminary injunction that requires the Interior Department to disconnect its systems from the Internet for the second time in as many years.

An Interior spokesman said the order did not require the immediate disconnection of any systems.

The judge issued the order following a hearing during which the plaintiffs, who represent American Indian trust beneficiaries in the Cobell vs. Norton case, asked for the injunction. The plaintiffs argued that the disconnections were again needed to protect American Indian trust accounts from tampering via Internet access to Interior systems.

Lamberth wrote in the injunction that the department need not pull the online plug on any systems 'essential for protection against fires or other threats to life or property.' He gave the department 10 days to identify and certify systems meeting this criteria and said officials must provide specific justifications for keeping each system online.

The judge first ordered Interior to pull its systems offline in a similar order on Dec. 5, 2001. At that time, consultants hired by the court proved that hackers with minimal experience and free software could break into the trust accounting applications and create bogus accounts.

In his latest order, Lamberth also exempted systems that do not provide access to trust data or that Interior can show are secure from unauthorized entry. The order gave the department 15 days to identify and show proof to support exemptions for systems in this category.

'It is clear that the injunction does not order any immediate disconnection of any system at the Interior Department,' spokesman Dan Dubray said. 'We are evaluating the requirements of the certifications, and the Interior Department will respond in detail.'

Lamberth also ordered Interior to provide a plan within 30 days for how the court could approve reconnections of individual systems to the Internet and determine whether reconnected systems should be allowed to stay online.

The injunction said the court will review the plan and rule on whether systems can be connected to the Internet. In doing so, Lamberth eliminated the role of special master Alan Balaran, a court-appointed official who has been overseeing reconnections and security tests since the 2001 order.

Interior has reconnected many of its systems under Balaran's supervision. One group of exceptions are systems at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, many of which remain offline.

In all, Dubray said, 20 percent of the department's systems already are disconnected from the Internet because of the earlier order.

The 7-year-old dispute centers on the government's management of American Indian royalty revenues from coal, oil, gas, grazing and other resources that the department administers as a trustee. The plaintiffs charge that the government has lost billions of dollars of the trust funds through mismanagement since the 1880s.

'We do not believe the defendants have the will or the ability to correct the problems' with Interior's systems, said Dennis Gingold, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

'We have a trustee delegate [the 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.

Questions on cooperation

Justice Department lawyer John Warshawsky had argued that Lamberth should deny the injunction request because it is 'not justified by the general claim that there are weaknesses in computer security.'

But Lamberth questioned Warshawsky sharply on whether the government had been cooperating with Balaran as required by the original injunction.

The Justice 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. He told the department and its lawyers that they would now have to deal directly with him and not Balaran.


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