Federal Bureau Still Waiting for Internet

1200587449Yesterday brought plenty of news on the casino front. The Globe and Herald both reported that pro-casino spending on Beacon Hill lobbyists was going up-up-up, the AP noted that Gov. Deval Patrick is working to coordinate strategies with the unions in support of his proposal, as well as planning to meet one-on-one with legislators.

And, finally, we gave you the heads up to expect the Mashpee Wampanoag’s casino blueprints to be rolling out sometime in the not-to-distant future. This is all useful and important information.

But it’s nowhere near as interesting as this: The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs is not connected to the internet. Yes, it’s true, the employees of a major branch of the Department of the Interior—and it is this branch that is responsible for deciding whether the Mashpee will be allowed open a casino on Indian land—cannot so much as Google “Plymouth Rock” from their desks, let alone send an email to the outside world. We think they might be using the Pony Express instead.

Granted, they haven’t been able to login to anything since 2001, but I just found out about this the other day when a BIA official asked me to fax him something, because he didn’t have email. Given how (much more) inefficient this makes the BIA, frankly, I’m amazed this doesn’t get more attention.

But before you start railing against the ridiculousness of the federal bureaucracy, know this: It’s actually both the ridiculousness of the federal bureaucracy and the federal judiciary that’s to blame.

The BIA’s disconnecting stems from an ongoing 1996 lawsuit, widely known as the Cobell case. Cobell is a class-action suit brought by Indian representatives against the United States government, alleging that for the last, oh, 100 years, the Department of the Interior (and thus the BIA) has mismanaged Indian trust accounts.

With billions of dollars at stake, a judge ordered the Department of Interior and BIA to shut down their servers in December, 2001, because their system was so insecure that it compromised the protection of account holders. The Interior servers have since come back up, but the BIA hasn’t been so lucky. Bureau spokesman Gary Garrison says that even though the BIA has significantly upgraded security for its servers, it hasn’t been enough to persuade the judge to let them join the 21st Century.

Garrison says he’s heard rumors that the BIA could get reconnected soon, but for now they’re just that: rumors. “After a while you just quit listening to them,” he adds.

“It impacts our job,” Garrison continues. “When we put out a news release we have to spend an hour and a half at a fax machine faxing to our list.”

(Mashpee spokesman Scott Ferson says he was unaware the Bureau could not access the internet, but acknowledged that this did help explain why they would tell him to wait by the fax machine for important releases.)

On the fourth floor of the BIA’s Washington, DC office there does exist a lone computer room, with real live internet connections. So when Garrison needs to look something up, he trudges upstairs, does his Googling and returns to his desk. (No sooner than he returns to his desk, he realizes he needs to look something else up and then has to go back upstairs. This happens a lot.)

As funny as this is, on a certain level it’s also obscene. Since they’re the group charged with deciding whether or not the Mashpee get to open a casino on Indian land, the BIA holds a significant piece of Massachusetts’ future in its hands. Yet, they’re forced to work at quarter speed.

In a further affront to taxpayers, the feeble state of the BIA webpage prohibits them from posting important online documents. So instead of having easy downloadable access to a pdf version of, say, the environmental report on the Mashpee’s plans (to be discussed in those March hearings), if you want a copy you’ll have to send away for the CD-ROM.

It’s hard to say whether the Federal Government is more to blame for their inability to come up with hack-safe computers, or if the various judges who have presided over Cobell deserve the brunt of the criticism for being so obstinate. I guess it’s probably safer to lay blame at the feet of the BIA. After all, you can’t read a blog without the internet, so we could say anything about them and they’d never even know.