Interior threatens whistle-blower

Fight continues over Interior's oversight of Indian trust funds in lawsuit accusing department of doing a poor job of protecting data from hackers.

In the latest chapter of a dispute over protecting Interior Department data from hackers, citizens filed a motion last Tuesday asserting that top Interior Department officials threatened to transfer a government-employed witness if she testified in support of the plaintiffs.

In the document, the plaintiffs’ lawyers ask the court to order Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her senior managers to demonstrate why they should not be held in contempt for violating the court’s anti-retaliation order.

This is the most recent flare-up in a nine-year class-action lawsuit that criticizes Interior's oversight of Indian trust funds. Plaintiffs have accused department officials of doing a poor job of protecting data from hackers.

According to the filing, the plaintiffs called Ronnie Levine, chief information officer at the Bureau of Land Management, to testify in support of their position that Interior be ordered to disconnect from the Internet and shut down insecure IT systems to safeguard trust data.

“Moments before Ms. Levine took the stand for her final day of testimony, she was told that she would be removed as bureau CIO and transferred to a non-information technology position in a bureau office that is targeted for closure,” the document states. “Under oath, Ms. Levine confirmed the chilling effect such retaliation had had on her forthcoming testimony and her fear of further retaliation. The message was delivered with absolute clarity: If you testify truthfully, you will be punished.”

Agency officials took the bureau’s Web sites off-line for two months this spring after Interior’s inspector general issued a report warning that the agency’s IT systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks.

In 2001, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered Interior to disable Internet connections on all computers that could be used to access trust fund data. He ordered two subsequent shutdowns, although Internet access has returned to the department following a federal appeals court ruling that blocked Lamberth’s latest order.

Interior spokesman Dan DuBray declined to speak in detail about the personnel matter but said, “We categorically reject the hyperbole of this motion.”

Government lawyers and Lamberth could not be reached for comment.