Interior Monologue

For nearly four years, the 11,000 employees of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs have had no access to the Internet or external email, managing a $2.4 billion bureaucracy and overseeing 56 million acres of land without the basic tools of the modern office.

But to hear Interior Department spokesman Dan DuBray tell it, the bureau’s employees have fared just fine on the other side of the digital divide. “A lot of activity goes on with fax and telephone calls, walking from one floor to the next, a lot of meetings — the traditional ways people keep in touch,” he explains.

The BIA has been stuck in this techno-logical time warp since 2001, when the federal judge overseeing Cobell v. Norton punished the bureau for failing to safeguard its Indian land trust records. Court-appointed experts had hacked into the bureau’s files, concluding that “protecting trust funds is not now, and has never been, a ‘priority.'” In response, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth revoked the BIA’s Internet privileges until it cleaned up its act.

After Lamberth pulled the plug, an indignant Interior Secretary Gale Norton shut down all of her department’s websites. When the National Park Service’s site went dark, Lamberth quipped that the department had come down with a case of “Washington Monument syndrome.” “Every time Interior loses its appropriation,” he said, “the first thing they do is close the Washington Monument. Then they go to Congress looking for money.”

The Park Service and other Interior agencies eventually got back online, but the BIA has yet to fulfill Lamberth’s order to set up firewalls and other routine computer-security measures. Interior’s own inspector general recently gave the department an “F” for security and demanded his own computer system. Yet DuBray insists that the Indian trust data is safe from everyone except court-appointed “sophisticated hackers,” adding “we don’t believe that data has been ‘lost’ or ‘destroyed’ as a result of an incursion.”

But the technology specialist who first tipped off Lamberth to the sad state of computer security at the BIA now warns that the trust data is vulnerable to internal threats. Mona Infield, who heads the bureau’s disaster recovery unit in New Mexico, claims the bureau is writing over its backup tapes — tapes that could contain key information to the Cobell case. Once those tapes are overwritten, she explains, “You can’t go back and know how much you have paid [the Indians]. We don’t know what the ownership of the land is at that point. It’s no longer there.”

Infield was put on administrative leave after blowing the whistle in 2001, but she is now back in the office. Not that she can get much done. Like other BIA employees, whenever she wants to Google something or check her email, she has to go home or to an Internet café, where she can log on without violating a federal court order.