WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Internet access is being restored to five offices at the U.S. Department of the Interior, following a recent court ruling. The agencies going back online are the Office of the Solicitor, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, the Office of Hearing and Appeals and the Office of Historical Trust Accounting.
Employees of these offices will soon be able to provide services and conduct business online, including research, monitoring and oversight work, and communicate via email with other agencies in the Department, with federal, tribal, state and local governments, as well as with their clients, stakeholder groups and the public.
On Dec. 5, 2001, the federal judge in a class action lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, Cobell v. Norton, entered a temporary restraining order requiring the Department to disconnect from the Internet all information technology systems that housed or provided access to individual Indian trust data, on the basis of perceived risks to that data. On Dec. 17, 2001, a Consent Order was entered which continued that prohibition and also established a process for the Department to obtain permission from the court to reconnect bureaus on a case-by-case basis.
Parts of the Department were permitted to reconnect in 2002. However, the five offices that work closely with Indian trust data remained off the Internet. On May 14, 2008, U.S. District Judge James Robertson, the presiding judge in the case, vacated the Consent Order, thus allowing those offices to reconnect.
Before seeking the approval to reconnect to the Internet, the Department determined that the security controls and plans were in place for the offices to provide adequate security commensurate with the risks and magnitude of the harm resulting from potential unauthorized access, to protect the information associated with the systems.
"The Office of the Chief Information Officer for the Department of the Interior and the Solicitor's Information Technology team have worked incredibly hard to ensure that we reconnected to the Internet in a way that was both expeditious and responsible," said David Bernhardt, the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior.
"I am extremely pleased that all Indian Affairs offices and bureaus will now be allowed to enter the 21st century and take their place among their federal peers on the Internet," said Assistant Secretary Carl J. Artman. "Reconnection will allow our employees to work more efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of tribes and their members."
"Having access to the Internet and utilizing modern technology provides additional opportunities to expand efficiencies and enhance operations throughout the organization," said Donna Erwin, Principal Deputy Special Trustee.
"We are very pleased that our Internet communications system is being restored," said Bert Edwards, the Executive Director of the Office of Historical Trust Accounting. "We have more than 100 tribal cases before 28 different judges and communicating with the parties and agencies has been extremely difficult without the Internet."
"Thanks to the hard work of our information technology specialists and contractors and the assistance of many others in the Department, our network is far more secure today that it was six and half years ago," said Office of Hearings and Appeals Director Robert More. "We are looking forward to again making available to the public our searchable website database of past decisions."
The Office of the Solicitor is responsible for and has supervision over the legal work of the Department. The Bureau of Indian Affairs carries out Interior's trust responsibilities to Indian and tribal trust beneficiaries, and promotes tribal self-determination, self-governance and economic development. The Office of Special Trustee carries out the Department's fiduciary trust responsibilities to American Indian tribes, individual Indians and Alaska Natives. The Office of Historical Trust Accounting conducts the historical accounting of Individual Indian Money Trust Fund accounts involved in the Cobell litigation and Tribal Trust Fund accounts involved in the 100 pending tribal cases. The Office of Hearings and Appeals provides an impartial forum where parties affected by Interior decisions can obtain independent review. It also fulfills Interior's trust responsibilities for probate of Indian trust estates.