FBI group says shutdown imperils national security

FBI agents are working without pay during the government shutdown, and their advocates say that the resulting financial instability is a national security risk.

FBI Headquarters (Photo by Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock)
 

Nearly 13,000 FBI agents are working without pay during the government shutdown, and their advocates say that the resulting financial instability is a national security risk.

The FBI Agents Association (FBIAA) wrote an open letter Jan. 10 urging policymakers to end the partial government shutdown, saying that missed debt payments could complicate agents' security clearance status and harm recruiting. The letter states that "financial security is a matter of national security."

The bureau is funded under the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriation, and currently all FBI agents are working without pay. Overall, 87 percent of FBI employees are required to work during the shutdown.

Like other exempt and essential workers, FBI agents are not being paid. Jan. 11 will mark the end of the first full two-week period in which most federal employees affected by the partial shutdown will miss their regular paycheck.

Large debts have traditionally been a red flag for government employees going through background checks or applying for security clearances, because of the possibility that financial need could make those in debt vulnerable to compromise.

Holding more than $7,000 in certain kinds of debt, such as credit card debt, would automatically trigger a separate background investigation of an individual by the government, according to comments made last year by William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

However, Evanina said the government was revisiting some of those guidelines, citing the increasing prevalence of debt in American life and a backlog of background investigations.

"If you ask folks who do this for a living, they say, 'Well, we've never really rejected anybody's security clearance because of bad debt,'" Evanina said. "So why are we spending so much time on it?"

Since then, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed to FCW in September 2018 that certain changes were made to the background investigations process following Evanina's comments but declined to offer more detail or specifics on any modifications.

The FBIAA letter also argues that that the shutdown will hurt recruitment efforts at the bureau and push career officials to leave for more stable employment opportunities.

"Special Agents are skilled professionals who have a variety of employment options in the private sector," the group writes. "The ongoing financial insecurity caused by the failure to fund the FBI could lead some FBI Agents to consider career options that provide more stability for their families."

That statement tracks with broader concerns that some policymakers have expressed about the impact of the shutdown on government's efforts to recruit top IT and cybersecurity talent.

Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) put out a statement Jan. 9 saying the government already "cannot compete on salary when it comes to recruiting [IT] talent" and relies on appeals to serve the public good to attract employees. Prolonged shutdowns greatly harm those efforts, she said.

"How can we ever hope to recruit or maintain IT talent when hardworking government workers are told: 'sorry, you aren't getting paid, but you still need to come to work' or 'sorry, but no paycheck this week because of politics?'" said Kelly. "Large private sector companies never say this to their employees and these are our competitors when it comes to IT talent recruitment."

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