Court Ruling Puts Department Of Interior Back Online

It had been disconnected since March 15 to protect from hackers money owed to American Indians. Security holes remain, however.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Interior Department will go back online after an appeals court Wednesday blocked a judge's ruling that ordered most of the department's computers disconnected from the Internet.

It took the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit just three hours to grant the government's request to restore the Interior's Internet access. It had been shut down since March 15 to protect money owed to American Indians from computer hackers.

The shutdown disrupted public's access to Interior Department Web pages, land managers' communications, disbursement of mineral royalties to states, and education of children in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said she was pleased with the appeals court decision and will continue pushing for a permanent reversal of the Internet shutdown.

"Meanwhile, tonight we have begun to restore our Internet connections across all impacted agencies of the department and will work quickly to restore them to pre-March 15 levels," she said.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the shutdown after the Interior Department failed to show it had fixed security problems that left vulnerable to Internet security breaches millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas, timber and grazing activities on American Indian lands.

Law enforcement, firefighting and other emergency systems and those that had fixed the security problems were allowed to remain online.

On Monday, the Minerals Management Service sent letters to the governors of 36 states, informing them they would not receive roughly $90 million in monthly royalty payments until the computers were reconnected.

The order also had prevented American Indian landowners and Indian tribes from receiving their monthly royalty payments for oil, gas, timber and livestock activity on their land. It had left 50,000 children attending 184 Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in 23 states without Web access, and environmental groups had complained they were unable to collect key information on department policy proposals.

It was the third time the Internet connections had been axed since 2001, when a court monitor, Alan Balaran, found security holes could allow even a novice hacker to penetrate the system. To prove the point, Balaran repeatedly hacked into the system and created a bogus account in his name.

Lamberth is presiding in a class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of more than 300,000 American Indians, alleging that since 1887, the department lost, stole or never collected tens of billions of dollars in royalties that should have been paid to Indian landowners.

Attorneys for the Indian plaintiffs could not be reached Wednesday evening.

"I am pleased today's decision restores badly needed Internet access to BIA schools," Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Wednesday. However, he said: "The Interior Department has not met its responsibility to secure Indian Trust Accounts. ... I urge Secretary Norton to act quickly to ensure that trust account holders' interests are protected so that no judge finds it necessary to shut down the Department's Internet service a fourth time."

The government told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that the judge had overstepped his authority and the shutdown was making it difficult for the department to function.

An Interior Department spokesman said officials were trying to determine how long it will take to get the systems back online.

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