By Angela Gunn
July 11, 2006
A long-running battle over security practices at the U.S. Department of
the Interior entered another chapter today as circuit court judges set
aside an earlier ruling which barred the agency from most Internet usage,
including e-mail. In addition, the circuit court removed judge Royce C.
Lamberth from the case he has presided over for nearly a decade.
The original class-action suit, filed in 1996, sought to correct
historical mismanagement of various American Indian trust accounts. The
case, Cobell v. Kempthorne, seeks an accounting for billions of dollars
held in trust since the late 19th century and belonging to approximately
half a million American Indians and their heirs.
The original shutdown in December 2001 took all Interior Department
information off-line, including Web sites for the National Parks System as
well as payment systems for both employees and contractors. About 40% of
the systems were restored within three months.
The tug of war between the district and circuit courts over Cobell heated
up again in 2004 when District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered that
all of the department's computers be disconnected from the Internet,
except for those deemed essential for public safety reasons. The systems
of the National Park Service, the Office of Policy Management and Budget
and the U.S. Geological Survey were also exempt. The Circuit Court for the
District of Columbia set aside that ruling in December 2004.
An internal IT audit in April 2005 revealed potential weaknesses in Bureau
of Land Management servers keeping track of oil and gas leases on Indian
land in the west. No breach was detected, but systems were taken off-line
to correct the problems found. In October, Lamberth once again ordered
much of the network off-line, but the Interior department received an
administrative stay on that order.
In a statement Tuesday on the IndianTrust.com site, plaintiff Elouise
Cobell praised Lamberth's work on the case over the years and stated that
the decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court, since it appears to
conflict with previous rulings concerning the Interior Department and its
The department's computer security has consistently been found substandard
by the House Committee of Government Reform, which issues an annual report
card on security implementations in federal agencies. The Interior
Department has received a failing grade in four of the five years the
report card has been compiled.
PDF copies of the ruling  and of the order removing Lamberth  from
the case may be viewed online.
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