Congressional failure to keep the federal government running has created a "dreamland" for foreign governments to recruit spies inside the U.S. government and has left many threats against the homeland unaddressed, top intelligence officials are warning.
"I've been in the intelligence business for about 50 years. I've never seen anything like this," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, referring to the government shutdown, told lawmakers Wednesday. "This seriously damages our ability to protect the safety and security of this nation and its citizens. … The damage will be insidious."
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on an unrelated matter, Clapper insisted the shutdown "is not just a Beltway issue," noting that the U.S. intelligence community has been forced to furlough about 70 percent of its workforce.
To determine who would be furloughed, Clapper said intelligence officials are legally required to apply a standard that says only those who are "necessary to protect against imminent threat to life or property" can stay on the job.
He said adjustments to the current workforce will be made depending on "what we see as the potential imminent threats to life or property." Still he said, "This is extremely damaging, and it will increase so as this shutdown drags on. … Each day that goes by, the jeopardy increases."
Then Clapper made this dire warning: "This is a dreamland for foreign intelligence services to recruit, particularly as employees -- already many of whom are subject to furloughs driven by sequestration -- are going to have … even greater financial challenges."
In other words, the shutdown is increasing the risk that intelligence and law enforcement officials fall into debt – and paying off debt is a key sales point foreign governments make to potential spies.
In fact, many U.S. intelligence agencies won't give security clearances to applicants who have significant debt out of fear they could be vulnerable to foreign governments' recruitment efforts.
To defend against such recruitment in the midst of the shutdown, the U.S. intelligence community is setting up counseling services for employees to help them manage their finances, Clapper said.
The head of the National Security Agency expressed concern that counterterrorism officials now have to further prioritize the threats against the nation, assigning resources to only "the most specific threats."
"We can't cover all of [the threats], so what we're doing is we're taking the most significant counterterrorism and other threats that we see ... [and] that's the priority," NSA director Keith Alexander told lawmakers.
The top Republican on the Senate committee said the large number of intelligence officials being furloughed raises questions about the workforce itself.
"I'm concerned that if lawyers in the intelligence community determined that 70 percent of their employees are non-essential to the mission … then the intelligence community either needs better lawyers to make big changes to the workforce or [needs to look at whether the agencies are] over-employed in those areas," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
At the same time, an FBI official outside Washington said the piecemeal approach and budget back-and-forth in Congress are also having an impact on counterterrorism efforts, forcing officials to repeatedly address budget changes rather than fight terrorism.
"We spend way too much time and money anticipating and preparing for these economic roller coasters," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I've been around long enough to remember annual appropriations made and approved with enough time for agencies to prepare spending plans for their budgets. Sadly, many younger employees have seen only [continuing resolutions] and the scare of shutdowns every year. Like the financial markets, we crave stability."