Security clearances at risk due to shutdown, warns FBI agents

Federal employees are already experiencing difficulties making ends meet during the partial government shutdown, such as turning to gig-work to pay the bills, food banks to feed their families and financial institutions for some relief on mortgages and car payments. But some feds are experiencing another anxiety tied to their finances: Their security clearances could be at risk.

A report from the FBI Agents Association, an advocacy organization, noted that the prospect of missing a second paycheck this month raises the likelihood that federal employees will begin to default on debts, damaging their credit ratings.

The Jan. 22 report — entitled “Voices from the Field: FBI Agent Accounts of the Real Consequences of the Government Shutdown” — highlighted the adverse effects the shutdown is having on FBI agents, largely expressed in their own words.

The problem here is that the government reviews the credit reports of applicants for security clearances, as financial difficulties can be leveraged by hostile agents to compromise federal employees. This could harm the chances of FBI agents obtaining or renewing their security clearances, potentially even endangering their employment.

“My wife and I are both FBI employees who were recently transferred to a new city and finally bought our first home,” said one agent from the FBI’s central region in the FBIAA report. “Now we can’t pay the mortgage for it. We contacted our lender, and they are refusing to work with us. They don’t want our ‘Hardship Letter,’ they want money, period. My wife and I both have a combined 30 years of service with our country.”

This is not the first time the FBIAA has raised this concern. On Jan. 10, the day before federal employees missed their first paycheck, it published an open letter warning against such an outcome.

“We urge our elected representatives to fund the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI because financial security is a matter of national security,” the letter read.

The FBIAA isn’t alone in this concern. That same day, Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Mark Warner (D-Va.) raised the issue in a letter to then-Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management Margaret Weichert.

“Due to absolutely no fault of their own, the jobs of dedicated government personnel whom we entrust with the nation’s secrets could be at stake. The problem is particularly acute for younger workers who lack a long credit history,” Warner said in the Jan. 10 letter.

Quotes from the FBIAA report back this up.

“New agents assigned to [high-cost areas] can barely afford to live there even while being paid,” said an agent from the FBI’s western region in the FBIAA report. “If this lasts another month, many of us will have to decide between bankruptcy, eviction or quitting. … If we are forced to quit, the Bureau will suffer significant manning issues, placing more strain on the already overburdened agents who can afford to stick it out a few more months. We’re also told that financial instability is a vulnerability from a counter-intelligence standpoint.”

Warner also requested OMB and OPM provide guidance to agencies, telling them to take the shutdown into account when reviewing existing security clearances.

“While I understand that departments and agencies have discretion to consider broader factors that may affect credit (like a government shutdown), I ask you to issue clear and public guidance that departments and agencies may in no way penalize employees’ clearances or determinations of trustworthiness if their credit is effected by the shutdown. This guidance should apply to any information used in an initial clearance, a periodic reinvestigation, or a continuous evaluation program,” he said.

The FBIAA report also features quotes from FBI agents, identified only by the region in which they work, that express other difficulties of doing their jobs during the shutdown.

“The shutdown has eliminated any ability to operate. … It’s bad enough to work without pay, but we can only conduct administrative functions while doing it. The fear is our enemies know they can run freely,” said an agent from the FBI’s western region in the FBIAA report.

The inability to travel is one issue hampering numerous investigations. Some agents said this prevents them from supporting state and local law enforcement investigations, weakening inter-agency trust, cooperation and coordination.

Others are unable to visit countries within their purview, hindering international information sharing efforts and investigations with partner countries.

Lack of travel can also hinder training opportunities. In some cases, this means the FBI has had to abandon commitments to train state and local law enforcement.

“Part of our [unit’s] assignment is to train federal, state and local law enforcement,” said an agent from the FBI’s northeast region in the FBIAA report. “These trainings are in high demand and provide significant resources to agencies. … Training is often scheduled months in advance. Due to the shutdown, we cannot ship the materials used to conduct training, nor can we travel to provide the training we already committed to.”

One agent said that other state and local organizations, like civil support teams, may be able to move forward with training, but lack of FBI participation can result in them receiving a lower grade in the required certification process.

Others said they cannot obtain funds to pay confidential sources, or pay for the necessary equipment to contact them. This delays investigations into gangs, domestic and international trafficking, cyber security and terrorism.

“Not being able to pay confidential human sources risks losing them and the information they provide forever. It is not a switch that we can turn on and off,” said an agent from the FBI’s central region in the FBIAA report.

And even if the FBI is able to continue its investigation, some investigations, like healthcare or securities fraud, requires the cooperation of other agencies, some of which may currently be shut down.

“Given the complicated nature of this investigation, I … collaborate … with partners from [other government agencies]. As a result of the shutdown, communication with these partners has ceased. … Couple that with staff from the [U.S. Attorney’s Office] being furloughed, approximately 20-plus grand jury subpoenas are not being delivered to involved/assisting entities. The case is basically on a paused status until the government reopens,” said an agent from the FBI’s southeast region in the FBIAA report.

And recruitment and retention is quickly becoming a concern as well. One agent worried younger employees will seek employment elsewhere, as the FBI has more investment in them in the form of time, money and training than they have in the agency.

Another is considering retiring, as the burdens of pay freezes and shutdowns are beginning to outweigh their attachment to the agency and the mission.

“Demographically, I’ve been an agent for more than four years and have a degree in computer science and work in computer intrusions. Putting up with lower pay than the private sector only makes sense when you actually get paid,” said an agent from the FBI’s D.C. region in the FBIAA report.

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