The Interior Department will go back online after an appeals court on March 24 blocked a judge’s ruling that ordered most of the department’s computers disconnected from the internet.

It took the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit just three hours to grant the government’s request to restore the Interior Department’s internet access, ending the disruption of service for children in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, among others. Interior’s web access had been shut down since March 15 to protect money owed to American Indians from computer hackers.

An Interior Department spokesman said officials were trying to determine how long it will take to get the systems back online.

A battle over American Indian land-use royalties is depriving nearly 50,000 students of access to the internet.

The court-ordered shutdown of many internet connections belonging to the U.S. Department of the Interior means American Indian children are missing essential educational opportunities, said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the department to pull the plug on many of its internet connections because of security holes that could have jeopardized hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties from Indian lands managed by the Interior Department.

Daschle said the shutdown has left students at schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) unable to connect to the internet, depriving them of “solid computer skills” that are “imperative for American students.”

“BIA students should be given all the resources available to help them succeed,” Daschle wrote in a letter March 19 to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. “This disruption, which, as I understand it, could last for an extended period of time, puts these students at a distinct disadvantage compared to their counterparts in other schools.”

He urged Norton to seek a speedy remedy to the shutdown and the lawsuit over the department’s alleged mismanagement of the Indian money.

Students in more than 180 schools on 63 reservations in 23 states were affected by the shutdown, Interior spokesman Dan DuBray said. About 70 percent were in Arizona, New Mexico, and the Dakotas.

“We are dismayed and also very concerned about the impact it is having–not just on Indian Country,” said DuBray, “but also on Bureau of Reclamation facilities and on those that are served by the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

DuBray said the department will either go back to the judge and ask permission to reconnect systems or ask the appeals court to intervene.

Keith Harper, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, represents the Indian plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Interior. He said the agency has known since 2001 that it had internet security problems, but refused to work with the court to fix them.

“We think it’s tragic that Interior would play this cruel game of chicken with the lives of people and those they should be serving,” Harper said. “They seem more concerned about disparaging the judge and creating a political crisis than doing the right thing.”

Judge Lamberth ordered the shutdown–the third in three years–after the Interior Department refused to sign sworn certifications that it had fixed security lapses identified in 2001 by the court’s special master, Alan Balaran.

To test the security, Balaran repeatedly hacked into the Interior Department’s system and created bogus accounts in his name.

The accounting system processes hundreds of millions of dollars annually that is paid to American Indians for oil, gas, timber, and grazing activities on their land. The department is assigned to collect and disburse the funds.

A class-action lawsuit before Lamberth, filed on behalf of more than 300,000 Indians, alleges the department stole, lost, or never collected tens of billions of dollars of the Indian royalties.


U.S. Department of the Interior

Sen. Tom Daschle

Bureau of Indian Affairs