updated 10/21/2005 4:57:27 PM ET 2005-10-21T20:57:27

The Interior Department won a reprieve Friday from a judge’s order to disconnect from the Internet all computer systems with access to accounts it manages for thousands of American Indians.

In a motion filed in federal courts, officials had said disconnecting the computers would cause “massive injury to the public interest and the operations of government.”

An appellate court on Friday granted a stay allowing the department to appeal the judge’s ruling.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the shutdown on Thursday, saying the department’s computer security was so bad that hackers could easily break into the system and access and manipulate the Indians’ account information.

He directed the department to disconnect all but those systems necessary to protect from fire or threats to life, property or national security.

Department officials say the order would affect as many as 6,000 computers across the country plus “an undetermined number” of others with indirect access to trust information.

Lamberth’s order was much more extensive than his previous opinions, which required the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other Indian agencies to go off-line to protect trust data.

In an almost 10-year-old class-action lawsuit, American Indians contend the government has cheated them out of more than $100 billion by mismanaging oil, gas, timber and other royalties on their land since 1887. A major issue in the case is whether the government has kept accurate and secure trust data.

Lamberth has frequently tangled with the department in the case, harshly criticizing its treatment of American Indians’ trusts.

On Thursday, he wrote that during tests, government-contracted computer experts were able to access several Interior Department computer systems for days at a time.

The government argues there is no evidence that any accounts have been hacked or that the damage would be irreparable if they were.

Interior officials say they are continuing to work to improve computer security.

Also on Friday, House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., announced that in light of Lamberth’s ruling, he would join senators working to settle the trust case.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who lead the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, proposed legislation last summer to resolve the case.

Their bill does not specify a settlement amount. The plaintiffs had offered to settle for $27.5 billion, an amount lawmakers say is too high.

Pombo said the lawsuit alerted the government of a problem that needed to be solved.

“Unfortunately, it has taken on a life of its own with a potential to cost billions of dollars on attorneys and accountants and very little for the Indians the lawsuit was supposed to benefit,” he said. “It’s time for Congress to assert its plenary authority over Indian affairs and give the individual Indians their due.”

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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