Shutdown hits national security employees across government

Days after Christmas and the start of what is now the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history, Maggie Feldman-Piltch, founder of a growing grassroots community of female national security professionals called #NatSecGirlSquad, reached out to members affected by the furloughs to offer support.

Now, over a month since the shutdown began, Feldman-Piltch has fielded calls from more than 300 federal workers asking for help paying bills and vetting résumés, among other requests, she says. Those reaching out include FBI officials; employees at the departments of State, Justice Department and Homeland Security; temporary workers from various agencies; and other national security officials.

U.S. Coast Guard spouse Rachel Whitlow holds her 15-month-old son, Walker, as she waits in line to receive free groceries during a food giveaway on Jan. 19, 2019, in Novato, Calif. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“It’s very obvious that it’s having a huge impact,” said Feldman-Piltch during a phone interview with Yahoo News. “The connective tissue part, the parts established after 9/11 to prevent stovepiping [blockages preventing information-sharing between agencies] … those are the parts falling first.” 

Feldman-Piltch, who is working on expanding her networking organization, didn’t anticipate fundraising to help federal employees, from the highest ranks to entry-level workers, “but it’s what’s needed,” she said.

Not every agency in the defense and national security arena is directly affected by the shutdown. The Pentagon, as well as much of the intelligence community, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the CIA, are fully funded — as is the Department of Energy.

However, officials serving in intelligence and national security roles in the FBI; the departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice; and other, smaller agencies have large numbers of employees either furloughed or working but not being paid. Some federal contractors are also impacted and may not receive back pay.

We are “working hard to keep troops’ spirits up with no paycheck,” said one senior national security official, referring to civilian employees. “Recruitment is probably down bigtime.”

Tom O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, holds a booklet with testimonies on how the government shutdown is affecting FBI agents, on Jan. 22, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

One of the agencies most heavily affected is the FBI, where large numbers of employees are either furloughed or being required to work without pay. “FBI operations are directed toward national security and violations of federal law and must be able to continue during a lapse in appropriations,” said an FBI spokesperson.

Four sources familiar with the matter, two of whom are former FBI employees who have maintained contact with former colleagues, say employees across departments are either looking for other work or have already quit, and the shutdown is the latest in a long stream of events whittling away at the overall morale of the agency. “Morale has been low for some time, unsurprisingly, and the pay is not great,” said one former FBI official.

Some of the areas most heavily hit are those working on cybersecurity issues and counterintelligence. The FBI has already lost some of its senior cybersecurity officials in recent months, and now that the shutdown is hitting pay, the bureau is “hemorrhaging” talent, said one former official. “Everyone with anything cyber in their resume is getting out,” the second former official said. Given the FBI’s major role in monitoring cybercrime and foreign meddling in domestic affairs online, the absence is sorely felt.

FBI officials are generally prohibited from outside work, but employees have started requesting exceptions for part-time work to pay the bills.

The FBI Agents Association, which represents almost 13,000 active FBI employees, petitioned Congress last week to immediately fund the bureau and its field offices. And on Tuesday, the FBIAA published a report that detailed the impacts of the shutdown on agents and their families. “For us, the fight for funding is not political,” said FBIAA President Thomas O’Connor in a statement “It is a matter of completing our mission to protect this country from criminal and national security threats.”

The impact across departments has been uneven. According to one State Department official, while 23 percent of overseas employees and 40 percent of domestic employees were furloughed as of last week, the department found funds to cover an additional pay period. Employees were summoned back to work on Sunday, but beyond the current period, paychecks are uncertain.

“The State Department is best positioned to carry out our mission when we have our entire team on the field,” the official said in a statement. “The department’s management, budget, and legal teams have been working on a way to do just that as the President continues working to secure our southern border and bring reforms that will ensure the safety and security of the American people.”

At the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 200,000 employees are working without pay, said one official — though 90 percent of the staff continues to work.

“The dedicated men and women of DHS are fully prepared to protect the homeland and keep Americans safe during this lapse in government funding,” said Tyler Houlton, DHS press secretary.

While the Pentagon isn’t directly affected by the shutdown, because the military already has its fiscal year 2019 funding, companies that contract with the Defense Department have been. The White House and Congress are “creating a whole heck of a lot of uncertainty for these companies,” retired Air Force Col. Wesley Hallman, senior vice president of policy at the National Defense Industrial Association, told Yahoo news.

Some of those companies may choose to leave the public sector altogether if the instability continues, he said. “Even those ones that are primarily in the defense sector, they say, ‘This could happen to us too; how do we protect ourselves from this?’”

Additionally, while the intelligence community is already funded and functioning more smoothly than other parts of the government, any team that works with other agencies is at least slowed down. “Totally unimpacted is a stretch,” said one former intelligence official.

And the longer the shutdown proceeds, many national security experts point out, the higher the chances are that vulnerable employees with access to classified information could become targets for foreign adversaries looking to recruit.

One Western intelligence official noted that spies are typically developed over longer periods of time, but it’s possible the Russians or other adversaries “might take advantage” of employees desperate for money to pay the bills.

“We are always mindful of the counterintelligence and security environment we operate in and the risks to federal employees, data, and facilities from adversaries,” said Dean Boyd, spokesperson for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center at the ODNI, in a statement to Yahoo News. “We continue to support our federal partners in building their counterintelligence capabilities and awareness through insider threat programs, information sharing initiatives, training, and other ongoing efforts.”

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