Web wanderers looking for information on national parks, government mapping services or geological disasters will need to get their information from non-official websites for a while.
A hired hacker's ability to easily penetrate computer systems operated by the Department of Interior has resulted in a legal order taking the entire system offline until the network can be secured.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth issued the order late Wednesday after a report showed that the computer system which handles $500 million annually in royalties from Indian land has major security holes that make it easy to access the system, alter records and possibly divert funds.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton has been ordered to return to court on Monday to answer charges of contempt stemming from the agency's non-compliance with Lamberth's order.
Earlier last Wednesday, in response to the court order, Norton had ordered that all servers containing the trust data should be taken offline.
But Lamberth was informed later in the day that the data was still accessible through personal computers used by Interior employees and contractors, provoking him to file new contempt charges against Norton.
Norton was already due in court on Monday to respond to prior contempt charges connected with this case, along with charges that she filed false reports with the court about her department's supposed progress to secure the department's computer systems.
The court-ordered system shutdown is the latest battle in a long legal war that has been making its way through the courts since 1996, when a class-action lawsuit was filed by Native Americans seeking to force the federal government to account for the handling of the billions of dollars belonging to approximately 500,000 American Indians and their heirs.
The money has been held in trust since the late 19th century. The Indians claim that the tribal funds have been badly mismanaged.
"It is disgusting and shameful that (Interior Secretary Gale Norton) and her predecessors have allowed this situation to exist and have done nothing. They should be in jail," said Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana who initiated the lawsuit. "They're treating money that belongs to individual Indians -- some of the poorest people in this nation -- like it's a candy store."
The security of the computer system that houses the trust money data became an issue early on in the case, which has been riddled with accusations of misbehavior, including frequent charges that government workers have not fully complied with court orders.
Court transcripts show that in response to an earlier order to secure computer systems, Dominic Nessei, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' former top technology officer, commissioned 18 independent security assessments at a cost of $1 million, and later admitted he never read any of them.
In 1999, Lamberth held former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt and fined them $600,000. He also ordered the Interior department to fix the system that tracks and disperses trust funds.
The agency has since spent $614 million in an attempt to comply with that order, according to reports in the court transcripts, but has been unsuccessful.
The current shutdown was ordered after a hacker hired by government-appointed investigator Alan Balaran managed to crack the computer system.
The hacker, whose name has not been released, reported the system was easy to access, with no firewalls or other software or hardware in place to block intruders or alert systems administrators to their presence.
Another hacker hired by the Department of Justice found the same shortcomings in the system.
Pending Monday's hearing, it is unclear when the Department of Interior sites will go back online.
Lamberth signed an order last Friday, granting "partial relief" so that agency systems which did not house or could access the American Indian financial data could go back online.
But virtually all of the Department of Interior websites still remained down on Monday.
According to statements from the agency, government computer experts are working to find ways to bring some of the roughly 100 networks affected by the court order back online while still complying with the order.
Agency workers are also without e-mail or Internet access, according to a statement by Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles.
"To the best of my knowledge, all relevant Interior agencies have disconnected their computer Internet access and the department's external network connections have now been shut down," Griles wrote in a memo circulated to agency workers on Friday. "In meeting the requirements of the court, our ability to conduct a large portion of our daily business has been impacted."
Hardest hit by the shutdown so far have been the 11,000 U.S. Geological Survey workers who were unable to receive urgent e-mail updates on a 6.1 magnitude earthquake that hit New Zealand Saturday.
A company called Emergency E-mail Network donated its services Friday so that the Geological Survey workers could access e-mailed news updates sent from the earthquake site.
The U.S. Geological Survey site went back online Monday afternoon. But others, including the main Department of the Interior site remained offline.
Norton has offered to meet with Indian tribes to discuss reorganization of the office.
"We are committed to taking action now that will chart a new course for positive productive trust reform that will benefit American tribes," Norton said Thursday at an energy conference for American Indian tribes, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians said reorganization is not the answer and Indians are tired of negotiating with the government.