MMS Ordered to Shutdown Website

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Minerals Management Service to shut down its Internet and email systems indefinitely to block hackers from $1 billion in American Indian funds the agency manages.

The MMS is part of the U.S. Department of Interior which, oversees offshore oil and gas production on approximately 4,000 platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.

The shutdown has hampered communications between energy companies, the government and the media. This week details about the production effects of Tropical Storm Bill, which hit the coast of Louisiana, were difficult to obtain.

"This time, because it (Tropical Storm Bill) coincided with the temporary restraining order, we had a bit of a problem because the companies couldn't report to us like they usually do," said Nicolette Humphries, spokeswoman at MMS in Washington. The storm ultimately fizzled into a tropical depression on Tuesday and impacts to refineries on the Gulf Coast were minimal.

Last Friday, DOI Judge Royce Lamberth shut down many of the DOI's sites, including some MMS and Bureau of Land Management sites, when the government refused to allow a court-appointed computer expert hacker to test the measures in place to protect the American Indian money.

It was the second time the judge has ordered such a shutdown to keep hackers from the fund. The last shutdown, which started in December 2001, lasted more than four months, according to the MMS. This time the restraining order has knocked some 2,500 government workers offline, said a DOI spokesman.

A spokeswoman at the Louisiana office of MMS said the agency was setting up a fax system to inform interested parties of storm impacts on energy systems in the U.S. Gulf, adding it would also try to pass on information via telephone.

MMS collects and disburses revenues from federal and American Indian leases and manages the money in a trust fund. The agency also provides information on the status of the platforms, which becomes particularly important to energy markets when hurricanes and storms affect production in the Gulf.

The restraining order came in connection with Cobell vs. Norton, a seven-year-old suit in which American Indian plaintiffs sought compensation from the government which they say squandered $137 billion from the fund over the last century.

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