The U.S. Interior Department has reverted to old-fashioned ways of communicating after a federal judge earlier this month shut down the agency's links to the Internet, including e-mail.
And the computer shutdown has blocked the Bureau of Indian Affairs' ability to issue this month's trust payments to 43,000 Indians, the agency said.
In Alaska, the shutdown also suspended Internet access for up to 229 tribal governments that had been provided by the Interior Department, said Cam Toohey, the special assistant for Alaska to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
"You have to resort back to some pretty basic tools like fax and phone and mail" and in-person meetings, Toohey said of the agency's adjustment during the shutdown. "Having grown accustomed to the Internet over the last 10 years, you don't realize how useful it is because you get used to it."
For the general public, the court order has meant no access to Web sites for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Minerals Management Service, the Office of Surface Mining and the Bureau of Reclamation.
A few people have asked that information be mailed to them because they couldn't reach the agencies by Internet, Toohey said from his Anchorage office.
Concerned about computer security, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on Dec. 5 ordered the Interior Department to disconnect from the Internet all of its computers that have access to data about individual Indian trusts.
A few days later he allowed the department to bring back online sites that issue disaster warnings and that interact with other fire agencies. And on Monday, Lamberth, in Washington, D.C., allowed the Interior Department to gradually reconnect its Web sites to the Internet as the agency proves that the Indian trust data is secure.
Following a lawsuit partially decided in 1999, the court has been monitoring those Indian trust accounts, which collectively hold hundreds of millions of dollars a year that the government pays to several hundred thousand Indians. The funds are from royalties from mining, grazing and timber harvesting in the West. Few Alaska Natives are affected because only about 36 acres in the state fall under the trust, Interior officials said.
Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, said he hadn't heard of Southeast Natives having problems due to the computer shutdown.
Judge Lamberth was concerned about the agency's computers because a hacker hired by the court's special master reported in mid-November that he was able to gain access to the Indian trust records.
Because hackers potentially could reach the trust accounts through a variety of Interior Department Web sites, the agency shut down all of its sites, said spokesman John Wright from Washington, D.C.
But lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana called the agency's computer shutdown "a wild overreaction." She said on a plaintiffs' Web site that it may have been mismanagement or a political tactic during the ongoing contempt trial of Secretary Norton.
Lamberth is considering holding Norton and another top Interior official in contempt of court over the agency's lack of progress in reforming the trust.
The first task under Lamberth's new order will be to get the December trust payments to the Indians, said Interior spokesman Wright. He wouldn't hazard a timeline for getting the whole Internet system up and running.
"The disconnect has posed some problems for our customers and stakeholders, and it has made us much more creative to get the work done," Wright said. "If this thing drags on very long, it will have a huge impact. Right now, we're working around the inconveniences."
The agencies have limited use of e-mail within their own offices or buildings. "Outbound-inbound isn't going to happen" while modems are disconnected, Wright said.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.
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