Could furloughs put the nation's secrets at risk?

Seventy percent of civilians in the intelligence community are on furlough, creating a danger to national security and a chance that some could end up working for the enemy, says intell director.

folder stamped 'top secret'

The head of U.S. spy agencies told lawmakers Oct. 2 that roughly 70 percent of civilians in the intelligence community are on furlough, and their absence presents a danger to national security and increases the possibility that some could end up working for the enemy.

"I've been in the intelligence business for about 50 years. I've never seen anything like this," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Oct. 2. "This affects our global capability to support the military, to support diplomacy and foreign policy matters. The danger here is that this will accumulate over time. The damage will be insidious, so each day that goes by the jeopardy increases."

Clapper said that if the shutdown continues, some furloughed employees may need to be called back in. He also suggested that damage to morale and monetary concerns could be enough to push employees to seek work with potential adversaries, calling the shutdown "a dreamland for foreign intelligence to recruit, especially as our employees, already subject to furloughs driven by sequestration, will have even greater financial challenges."

For now, the various agencies that comprise the intelligence community, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, are operating at reduced capacity.

Not everyone agrees that the shutdown poses a dire threat to national security. Gary Schmitt, resident scholar and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Clapper's shutdown rhetoric is overblown and incendiary.

"At this point Clapper is wildly overstating the impact on the intelligence community," Schmitt said. "It's reckless to say that furloughed employees are now good targets for other intelligence agencies to turn them into assets for other governments. If I was an employee of the intelligence community, I'd be pretty angry hearing that suggestion that so many people who have clearances are so susceptible to being turned for a dollar."

"The intelligence community's ability to identify threats and provide information for a broad set of national security decisions will be diminished for the duration," Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Clapper, said in a statement. "The immediate and significant reduction in employees on the job means that we will assume greater risk and our ability to support emerging intelligence requirements will be curtailed."

According to Defense Department shutdown plans, operations related to command, control, computers, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance necessary for national security are considered excepted activities and therefore not subject to furlough. Also exempt are activities required to operate, maintain, assess and disseminate the collection of intelligence required for military operations.

The shutdown was enough to prompt Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to deem the furloughs crippling to the intelligence community.

"Our shutdown is the biggest gift we could possibly give our enemies," she said in a speech on the Senate floor, according to The Hill.

While the shutdown is temporary and, if extended, could pose problems, there are other serious issues to be concerned about, Schmitt said.

"The idea that we'd cut 70 percent of employees at NSA who keep track of communications that we depend on for counterintelligence purposes strikes me as either the administration doesn't take seriously what essential means, or they're just vastly overstating what in fact is happening," he said. "At some point, the shutdown will end. The real issue is what the sequester will do to the intelligence community, since the budget takes about 50 percent of those cuts out of the defense budget and intelligence comes under that. The issue shouldn’t be the shutdown; it should be how the president and Congress are going to continue with these significant cuts in national security."