Judge Shuts Down Interior's Net Connections

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A federal judge on Monday once again ordered the Interior Department (search) to pull the plug on most of its Internet connections, finding that the department still hasn't fixed computer security problems that could jeopardize millions of dollars in royalties for American Indians.

It is the third time that U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth (search) has ordered the systems to be disconnected to protect oil, gas, timber and grazing royalties held in trust for the Indians.

Past Internet shutdowns have left the public unable to access information about popular national parks and monuments and made it difficult for Interior agencies to communicate with one another.

"The interest of the 300,000-plus current beneficiaries of the individual Indian trust outweigh the potential inconvenience of those parties that would otherwise have access to Interior's Internet services," Lamberth wrote.

The judge allowed all emergency systems, such as those that deal with law enforcement or fire fighting, to remain connected. The National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey, and Interior's budget office, will also remain connected, since they convinced the court that they have fixed their lapses.

Lamberth said the move was necessary because the department refuses to work with Special Master Alan Balaran (search) to fix holes in the computer security, even though it admitted to the White House budget office and congressional auditors that it suffered from Internet security problems.

Interior Department spokesman Dan DuBray said department's attorneys had not had time to review Lamberth's decisions Monday because they were before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit arguing that Balaran is biased and should be removed from the case.

Lamberth on Monday rejected a similar request before him, saying the department's argument was "wholly insufficient." In the ruling ordering the shutdown, Lamberth noted how Balaran had sought repeatedly to work with Interior, but the department had refused.

"True to form, Interior will surely rail against this court for taking over the executive and unconstitutionally usurping power, etc., etc.," Lamberth wrote. "The feigned indignance of Interior aside, there is simply no other alternative."

Monday's decisions come in a suit filed on behalf of more than 300,000 American Indian landowners. The department was assigned in 1887 to manage royalties from lands held in trust for the Indians. But over time, the lands were poorly managed and money was squandered, stolen or never collected.

The Indians sued in 1996, demanding an accounting that had been ordered by Congress two years earlier. In 1999, Lamberth said the department must account for the money and repair its management flaws.

Since then, however, the case has bogged down in court fights and congressional maneuvering. Interior insists that just a few million dollars are owed to the Indian landowners. The Indians' attorneys contend it is likely tens of billions of dollars.

Lamberth first disconnected the systems in 2001, after Balaran determined that even a novice hacker could penetrate the security and access data for the Indian revenues. To prove his point, Balaran, working with the court, repeatedly penetrated the system's security and set up a bogus account in his name.

The judge ordered a second, limited shutdown last June, after the department first resisted Balaran's oversight.