Computer Scientists in Short Supply at FBI, Watchdog Warns

Gil C/

Cyber teams at five FBI field offices across the country don't have a single computer scientist on staff.

The FBI continues to struggle to recruit and hire top-flight cybersecurity talent, warns a new assessment from the Justice Department’s inspector general.

The department has installed cyber task forces at each of the FBI’s 56 field offices and three years ago launched an effort, the Next Generation Cyber Initiative, to boost the size and skills of the department’s digital-savvy workforce.

“But even as it works to expand the ranks of its cybersecurity team, the department continues to face challenges recruiting and retaining highly qualified candidates to do this work,” wrote DOJ IG Michael Horowitz in a Nov. 10 memo to the attorney general on the agency’s top management challenges. The memo was first made public today.

For example, of 134 computer scientist positions the FBI sought to fill in 2014 as part of a planned staff-up, more than one-third -- 52 -- were never filled, according to a July audit. That has left cyber teams at five FBI field offices across the country without a single computer scientist on staff.

FBI officials told auditors the lag in hiring stems in part from an inability to compete with private-sector salaries. Job candidates often balk at the lengthy hiring process, which includes an extensive background investigation.

“While the process may start with a recruitment event attended by 5,000 interested candidates, the inability of candidates to meet the FBI’s specific eligibility criteria reduces that number to approximately 2,000 eligible candidates,” auditors noted. Typically, only about two candidates -- out of the original 5,000-person pool -- are ever actually hired by the FBI, officials told the IG.

More onerous background investigations could also be keeping potential candidates away officials told the IG. FBI employees must be U.S. citizens and are barred from having used marijuana in the last three years or any other illegal drug in the past 10 years.

FBI Director James Comey caused a stir last year when he said he was “grappling” with his agency’s marijuana policies.

“A lot of the nation’s top computer programmers and hacking gurus are also fond of marijuana,” he said in a May 2014 speech. He later lawmakers he had no plans to change the agency rules.

The FBI has said it will encourage increased mobility between the public and private sector, refocus a student loan repayment program for targeted positions and establish high school recruiting programs.

The FBI isn’t the only agency facing difficulties hiring -- and retaining -- tech talent.

At an event last spring on the shortage of skilled cybersecurity experts in government, a human resources official with the National Security Agency said even his agency struggles to hang on to elites.

“We lose more technical people at much higher rates to resignations early on in their careers than we do people in other skill sets,” said John Yelnosky, NSA’s HR technical director.

(Image via Gil C/