Interior Dept's 'Net problems not over yet

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Interior's Net debacle appears far from over

By Bill McAllister, Denver Post Washington Bureau Chief

April 02, 2002

WASHINGTON - Four months after a federal judge ordered the Interior Department to block computer hackers from an Internet website that contains Indian trust accounts, Interior Secretary Gale Norton still doesn't have e-mail.
Nor is Interior's big National Business Center in Denver or the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs back on the Internet. Nonetheless, Interior officials said Monday that the department has successfully relinked 85 percent of its offices to the Internet, virtually ending an electronic debacle that upset most of the department's employees, infuriated the judge and led to cries of protest from members of Congress.

"It created a new culture for us . . . one we haven't had for 10 or 15 years," said Interior spokesman John Wright. The department's abrupt decision to sever all links to the Internet forced thousands of employees to quickly learn how to do things "the good, old-fashioned way," Wright said.

It also inconvenienced a public that had become accustomed to dealing with the federal government's major land agency via the World Wide Web, Wright acknowledged. "We learned how much we had come to rely on the Internet," he said.

Interior offices that had become used to e-mailing daily reports to Washington had to mail or fax them. College professors who had pulled down scientific reports from the department's website had to scramble to find hard copies of them. And lots of people, from individuals seeking reservations at national parks to researchers attempting to study wildlife refuges, suddenly had to find new ways of getting information that had been a few mouse clicks away. Said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Megan Durham: "It was really annoying."

Her agency, one of the last to be reconnected, had tossed out its old news-release mailing list and gone to e-mail releases when Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles decided to disconnect the department in response to a Dec. 5 order by U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth.

In Durham's office, that produced a new horror. "We couldn't distribute news releases anymore," she said.

Dennis Gingold, the lawyer who has led the lawsuit over the security of Indian trust accounts, disputed how much of Interior actually has been reconnected. "Their numbers make no sense," he said. "A month ago they said it was 90 (percent connected). Two weeks ago it was 45. Today they say it's 85.

"They're about as honest with regard to those numbers as with regard to anything else," he said.

Glen Loveland, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., one of the lawmakers upset over the disconnection, said Monday that the department's promise to speed interim payments to Indians who live off their trust accounts "is still a mess."

"Many, many of our constituents have received only one check," Loveland said. That's despite promises from Interior officials that more than 7,100 payments were in the mail to thousands of Indians who depend on the accounts.

Lamberth, whose order prompted the episode, has made it clear in subsequent courtroom comments that he believes Interior officials failed to warn him how far they would go following his instructions. Members of Congress have complained that the department needed to reconnect quickly.

Wright declined to say when Norton and the remaining Interior officials, including the Denver business center, which handles payrolls for some federal agencies, are likely to gain Internet access.
 

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