Most U.S. Interior Department Web sites still off-line

The U.S. Department of the Interior is slowly getting back online after a federal judge last week ordered all of the department’s computers to be disconnected from the Internet.

At least one major Interior agency, the U.S. Geological Survey was back online today, while the National Interagency Fire Center was expected be back online soon. The main site for the Interior Department should also be online again soon, said spokesman Mark Pfeifle, although he wasn’t specific as to when the Web sites would be running again.

The Interior Department and the agencies under its authority were completely shut off from the Internet last week, which meant Web sites were down and business communications via e-mail were shut off. Agencies couldn’t communicate if they weren’t on the same internal network, Pfeifle said.

“We’re trying to utilize fax systems in the interim,” he said.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth last week approved a temporary restraining order filed by recipients of the Individual Indian Monies Trust and ordered that the Interior Department’s computers shut down until they were secure.

In a class-action suit against the government two years ago, the trust recipients won a ruling that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department, failed to properly monitor and maintain the Individual Indian Monies Trust. The trust, which holds millions of dollars, was established to compensate tribe members for the taking of their land by the U.S. government in the 19th century.

The plaintiffs in the suit alleged that the government was in violation of Lamberth’s ruling because it failed to secure the trust data. They then sought the temporary restraining order from the court.

The Interior Department hired security firm Predictive Systems Inc. in New York to secure its network. Special Master Alan L. Balaran, appointed by the court to investigate allegations that the trust data wasn’t adequately protected, also asked the security firm to try to hack into the Interior Department’s IBM servers in Denver. The firm was able to break into the agency’s computers undetected, court documents said. The judge then ruled that all Interior computers must be shut off from the Internet until they could be proved to be secure.

Balaran’s report and testimony from former Interior CIO Dominic Nessi indicated there was almost no protection of the trust fund data.