It may be one of the most serious missteps of the federal government shutdown.
After weeks of planning, the nation’s spy chief sent home nearly three-quarters of the workers at the government’s intelligence agencies when faced with the partial shutdown. The move, James Clapper later admitted himself, put the United States at greater risk of terrorist attacks. He then reversed course and brought thousands of employees back to work.
A review by McClatchy finds that lawmakers, former intelligence officials and national security experts say they were shocked that the administration furloughed the bulk of federal workers at 16 intelligence agencies, many of them tasked with the most important job in the government: safeguarding lives.
“It’s difficult for me to understand,” said Leon Panetta, who served as the director of the CIA and the secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “People that are involved in our intelligence are critical. You can’t possibly put 70 percent on furlough and not harm national security.”
Some accuse Obama administration officials of deciding whom to send home based on politics, seeking to dramatize the impact of the shutdown as part of a plan to blame Republicans in the House of Representatives for blocking a budget deal and failing to pay for important or basic services.
“The president is, of course, taking every step necessary as president to ensure the security of the American people,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “There are consequences to shutdown and they extend far beyond closures of parks and memorials or other things that we’ve heard a lot about.”
But others say the process was surprisingly haphazard — a moving target based on public pressure, differing legal opinions, a new law passed to ensure that the military got paid, even a change of heart.
Spokesmen at the White House and National Security Council referred specific questions to Clapper, the director of national intelligence. His office didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Clapper’s office initially estimated that 72 percent of intelligence employees had been furloughed, though the exact numbers are classified. By comparison, just 14 percent at the Department of Homeland Security and 5 percent at the Veterans Affairs Department were furloughed at the onset.
“The damage will be insidious,” Clapper said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Oct. 2 in answer to a question. “Each day that goes by, the jeopardy increases.”
In a report to Congress, Clapper said the decision had crippled his own office as well as the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, and had virtually wiped out intelligence agencies at the Departments of State, Treasury, Energy and Homeland Security. At the NSA alone, an estimated 960 Ph.D.s, 1,000 mathematicians and 4,000 computer scientists had been sent home.
NSA Director Keith Alexander said those employees who remained at work would focus on “the most significant counterterrorism and other threats that we see and support our military forces in Afghanistan and overseas.”
“Our country is at heightened risk of a terrorist attack,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said after receiving the report from Clapper.
Clapper told senators that he couldn’t guarantee that the United States would remain safe, something he said he’d warned Obama about as the shutdown began: “I don’t feel I can make such a guarantee to the American people, and it will be much more difficult to make such a guarantee as each day of the shutdown goes by.”
Though some conservative Republicans questioned whether he was exaggerating to make the situation appear more dire, national security experts say they didn’t doubt Clapper.
“When you’re taking out more than two-thirds of your workforce, you’re not going to be as effective,” said Robert Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia and a former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan and Congress.
Clapper told senators that he didn’t consider any employee “nonessential” but that the law required him to make “painful choices.” By law, he’s charged with overseeing the intelligence agencies.
A day after Clapper’s congressional testimony, on Oct. 3, his office began summoning an undetermined number of employees back to the National Counterterrorism Center, the National Counterproliferation Center, the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive and the National Intelligence Council.
A week later, the CIA began bringing back thousands of workers more after Director John Brennan cited concerns about the “potential adverse cumulative and unseen impact on our national security.”
The agencies didn’t say how it was allowed to bring back employees who were deemed “nonessential” just days before. But some national security experts say agencies liberally interpreted language in a new law that was passed to pay troops during the shutdown but that also allowed civilian employees to return from furlough if they provide direct support to the military.